Fantasy

Reaper-Sensation: Children Of Blood And Bone

By Niki

 

One of the most anticipated reads of 2018 and Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show 2018 Summer Read, Tomi Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone is an Afro-mystical re-awakening.

Covers: Macmillan Publishers and Ouida Books. Image: Elena Seibert via Macmillan Publishers.

 
They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.
NOW WE RISE.
 

I

have been a part of many conversations about diversity and representation, and thought I understood what it meant to be represented until a few pages into Tomi Adeyemi’s debut novel. The opening scene, presided over by a character called Mama Agba, is reminiscent of a female elder authority that shaped my childhood. As per tradition, I would sit around her whilst she wove tales of culture and folklore. To see this fictionalised in Children Of Blood And Bone was thus nostalgic.

The story follows a young girl: Zélie. She is haunted by the murder of her mother and the subjugation of her Reaper clan - one of the ten Maji clans that suffer abuse from corporal powers and are oppressed by the ruling class of Orïsha. Circumstances see her journeying and fighting alongside her brother and an escaped princess to restore magic to the land and allow her clan and the nine other Maji clans in the land, a fighting chance.


In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities.

The quest takes Zélie, Amari, Inan and Tzain and their pursuants from city to floating villages, up mountains and into sacred underground lairs. They sleep in tents in the deserts, fight in arenas, meet shady characters in caves and sail over walls on the back of mythical creatures. Adeyemi’s debut novel takes place across different terrains and climates, all within a singular imagined country. What is most striking about the multifaceted terrains in the book is Adeyemi’s mirroring of natural phenoms to Nigeria’s topography.

As with many Young Adult novels, Children Of Blood And Bone is also love story—in the romantic and familial sense—as well as a story of self discovery. The added beauty of this narrative is its Afro-mysticism: a genre that is finally getting its deserved spotlight after existing off the fringes of literary discourse, and being conflated with magic-realism. In this Afro-mystical novel, the magical, in the African sense, is not othered as something from a scary, unknown, feared presence but, rather, portrayed as a gift from the deities. These deities are pointedly inspired by the Yoruba tradition.

 

Names Mean Things

The deities in Adeyemi’s novel are pointedly inspired by the Nigerian, Yoruba tradition. This influence is similarly evident in the naming of places and characters within the novel. For one, the entire province is called Orïsha1—representative of the head of all divinity in the Yoruba tradition. This anchoring of the overall location of the narrative to the divine through naming, makes it a great playing field for a journey to restore lost magic.

Particularly in Ilorin—the fishing town where Zélie and her family reside—the older generation are given the respect of Mama and Baba. This naming, the people and the town are, again, based on Yoruba culture. For this reason, I was very disappointed by the ambiguity of the names given to the major characters. If anything, these names stand out for the wrong reasons; they felt like a pandering to a wider Western audience, and an attempt to create a space for them to relate to the characters at base level.

In Yoruba tradition, children are named to reflect the circumstance of birth, or, as prophecy into their destinies. The names given to a child usually holds weight both on paper and when sounded out. In both reading and sounding out the names particularly of the four central characters, I felt no depth. On the other hand, as a friend suggests, the ambiguity of the names could be seen as representative of the loss of and disdain for magic across Orïsha. In this sense, Zélie and Tzain’s names can be seen to reflect the new Maji existence under their tyrannical, magic-hating ruler, and displacement from their true identity. Though this perspective is equally valid, it is with one exception: the novel’s time frame.

The young sojourners in the novel were born to parents who wielded or fought against magic. Zélie is a replica of her powerful Reaper mother—murdered by the oppressive authority in a bid to eradicate all who had tasted magic. Zélie’s survival stemmed from the fact that Maji children only come into their powers at the age of thirteen - she was six when her mother was murdered and magic ceased to exist in Orïsha. However, her birth and that of her brother, Tzain, occurred in a period where parents expected Maji children to grow into their divine destinies and, as such, their names should reflect this.

 

Lagos Under A Microscope

Lagos, the place the King, royalty and the wealthy flock to and the most densely populated city with a great deal of slum-living is the centre of Orïsha. In many ways, Adeyemi’s presentation of Lagos, Orïsha is very similar to the reality of Lagos, Nigeria. Early in the story, the reader follows Zélie’s singular visit to Lagos and the picture of gross wealth disparities, market haggling and abuse of corporal power is very reminiscent of Lagos. However, the language of discourse in these scenes keeps the Lagos in Children Of Blood And Bone distinct.

Where Zélie trades in the Lagos market, her capabilities as a trader is recognised. This setting highlights how wealth gaps and abject poverty are sustained by the wealthier class. The King’s ever rising Maji tax-levies—designed to force Maji folks into prisons, slavery and to keep them poor—is what drives Zélie to Lagos. Where her father and brother hope that she can return with enough to last them through the month, Zélie is able to barter the rare fish she has in exchange for almost a year’s worth of money. That someone, desperate to eat fish to which the King has no access, can hand over enough cash to last Zélie, her father and brother a year, while Zélie and her family live day-to-day, is a travesty occurring in Adeyemi’s world, and likewise, in the real world.

Another prominent theme that comes up in the royal family is the issue of bleaching. The lighter skin is seen as a sign of royalty while darker skin is distasteful and scrubbed away with potions and creams. Princess Amari, darker than her family, is forced by her mother to undergo beauty rituals with the aim of lightening her skin. This experience leaves her with a skewed perception of her own beauty—a trajectory very similar to that of many young men and women across Nigeria and the rest of Africa.

Zélie’s interaction with the guards, on an attempt to enter Lagos, likewise reflects another societal issue: the sexual danger faced by women. Her status as Maji or “maggot,” as non-Maji individuals are hatefully labelled, presents her as fodder for the guards’ sexual desires. This perception of women as weak and easy to attack has allowed for sexual assault to be an issue women face. For the fear of being abused and murdered, she has to temper her reaction and adopt a false meekness—an all too real experience for many women.

 

Hate: A Four Letter Legacy

What takes Children Of Blood And Bone from a simple YA novel to a masterpiece is the level of complexity added by the self-loathing that drives two characters. For a particular character, the duality of being something one hates causes alliances and allegiances to shift. The internal and external conflicts these characters come against, owing to their understanding of the past and their position on the quest to restore magic, gives this story layers that are impressive for a first time author.

Tackling and sustaining the theme of deep hate—the kind that drives people to kill without mercy and teach hate to their offspring—is not an easy task, as any author could fall into the trap of presenting hate from a very linear perspective. Thankfully, Adeyemi does not. She writes characters that stay true to themselves. While there are twists and turns that make the book a fantastic read, character reactions are never implausibly outlandish or written to force excitement in the narrative. The plot and characters flow seamlessly.

The story ends on something of a cliffhanger. There is an ambiguity around the the success of the quest; creating an eagerness, post-completion of the novel, to break down theories therein. The end of Children Of Blood And Bones creates a clear path for new themes to be explored in the subsequent novel in the trilogy—Children Of Virtue And Vengeance. Adeyemi’s debut YA novel has a freshness and a simplicity that make it compelling. You may call it a must-read!



Have you read Adeyemi's Children Of Blood And Bone? Tell us what you think about it!

 

Note

1 The word 'orisha' is related to several other Yoruba words referring to the head. It can also be spelt orixa or orisa. An orisha may be said to arise when a divine power to command and make things happen converges with a natural force, a deified ancestor, and an object that witnesses and supports that convergence and alignment. An orisha, therefore, is a complex multidimensional unity linking people, objects, and powers.

In this story, the ruling class of Orïsha can be seen as a metaphor for oppressive classes or races across the world, with the Reaper clan and other formerly magic clans being forced to live in slums, work as slaves and suffer abuse from corporal power.

 

Return To Leopard Knocks

By Niki

A review of Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi by Nnedi Okorafor.

Guest edited by Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

Image: Cassava Republic; Cover Design: Anna Morrison; Illustration: Greg Ruth.

Image: Cassava Republic; Cover Design: Anna Morrison; Illustration: Greg Ruth.

It was with a giddiness that I settled into reading Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi, returning to Leopard Knocks to see how Sunny is faring a year-and-a-half into discovery of her Leopard identity and defeating Black Hat Okoto. There is no ease into this story: The reader is thrust back into the Leopard world as Sunny, at midnight, goes searching for tainted peppers to make the special Leopard Knocks pepper soup. She finds a great deal more than peppers; barely escaping with her life, after being attacked by a mystery lake creature.

The mystical takes centre stage in this book as Sunny is haunted both by the fearsome attack that opens the novel but also by vivid inexplicable dreams she fails to share with her fellow Oha Covena or mentor, Sugar Cream. The opening incident and the dreams are central to the journey Sunny will take in this novel as they point the way both to her nemesis, Ekwensu, and her destiny in Osisi.

The journey to Osisi — a place beyond succinct description — leads Sunny to further encounters with the weird and wonderful of her mystical world; the good and the downright terrifying. Okorafor also takes time out in this narrative to distinguish between the cruelty of human ideas of magic and the complex reality of mystical realms. This is done by exploring the bastardisation of confraternities in Nigerian Universitiesb by people who believe magic can only be tapped into through cruelty.

 

Nightmare Or Reality?

From the outset, Sunny is thrust into dangerous experiences. Okorafor is ruthless in her choices of the incidents the still-young Sunny faces in Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries, especially as many of these mystic creatures she comes up against are older and experienced. This tends to leave both Sunny and the reader fretting over her survival.

The description in this novel is captivating to the point that scenes described are capable of encroachment and becoming one's dreams/nightmares. Whilst initially sure that this was a book I would gobble up in one sitting, I was forced to spread it over two days; needing breaks to catch my breath and escape the terrifying encounters its characters kept coming up against. The world Okorafor creates for Sunny and co. is obsessive, enthralling and fearsome - so much so that I am baffled that this is a Young Adult (YA) novel.

To have Okorafor’s work exist today for the younger generation, especially African, is a call for celebration. Her perspective on the mystical is very separate from the Nollywood theatrics around representation of Native Doctors and the fear and cruelty with which certain communities treat children deemed supernatural. Okorafor writes about a world in which magic and mysticism are not sinful but cultural. Leopard Knocks is also a place where tribal conflict — a major Nigerian issue — is not much of a problem. Leopard individuals all speak a range of traditional languages as it better enables communication and learning.

 

Confratheatrics

Sunny’s uniqueness, her albino skin aside, is the fact that she alone in her immediate family is a Leopard person. Unlike Orlu, Sasha and Chichi, she has no one at home with whom to speak about the weird and wonderful journey she is on. Her only saving grace is her deceased maternal grandmother, who also was a Leopard person. This means that her parents are aware of her Otherness but also know that it is a discussion they can never have, further adding to Sunny’s sense of isolation in the real world.

Her older brothers, Chukwu and Ugonna, are too wrapped up in the business of being young men to notice their pubescent sister, that is until Chukwu goes to University and falls into the hands of cultists. Okorafor uses Chukwu’s university experience to highlight an important difference between the way Nigerian society thinks the magical works — cult abuse of power — against the ways the Oha Coven experiences the mystical.

Cults — as they stand today — are much different from their initial purpose. Their most famous originator Wole Soyinka in 1952, along with 6 other men, formed the Pyrate Confraternity while at the University of Ibadan. This group was to fight the power the elite had over the direction their Higher Education institution was going. Today, however, killings, abduction and lecturer intimidation are reportedly the legacy of University confraternities. They are also present in all Universitiesc in Nigeria.

Chukwu finds himself scouted by the Great Red Sharks, — a cult comprised of students and lecturers — where he is forced to begin an inhumane indoctrination process. The first, a thorough beating by all cult members — which one only passes if they live — is only an example of the depths of depravity Chukwu is being asked to descend to. To further drive the point, the land on which Chukwu receives this beating and is expected to endure further debasement holds the corpses of former unlucky initiates. His surviving the beating is due to the help of a friend, Adebayo, a recent successful initiate to the fraternity.

The cult leader, Capo, described by Sunny as “a lamb version of Black Hat;” the Leopard villain she defeats in the first book of the series — leads the Sharks in their meetings which consists of heavy drinking and calling on the devil in Yoruba. Sunny, along with Chichi, accosts them from the shadows as revenge for their cruelty to Chukwu. They introduce the cultists to real mysticism that leaves them all shaken. Where Capo and crew have used physical cruelty to re-inforce ideas of their magical abilities, Sunny and Chichi are able to terrorize from a safe distance without causing lasting damage.

This addition to the novel is important, not only as a discussion about a huge problem on University campuses in Nigeria, but also a chance to explore the place of human cruelty in our understanding of other supernatural ideas. Leopard Knocks and all its characters are multi-dimensional in their representation of the mystical, which is in direct opposition to the one-dimensionality of cult mysticism.

 

Creepie Crawlie City

Undeniably present in Okorafor’s series are a myriad of imagined insects: so well detailed, sometimes loveable, and other times terrifying. The insects contribute to the mysticism of the novel while also giving, in a way only Okorafor can, a credibility to the world she creates. In this installment of the series, there is careful determination that the reader meets and engages with these creatures both great and small. Anyone who follows this YA author on Twitter will be familiar with her proclivity to post unique insects that do exist in the real world, and as such, will not be shocked by their prominence in her writing.

These creatures are additionally fascinating owing to their functionality, history and presence. Nothing in Okorafor’s world exists without purpose or deep roots in Leopard history. A reader will come across the wise Ogwu and her many legged children, the terrifying, crafty Udide, and the mischievous Grashcoatah, amongst a bevy of interesting creatures as the Oha Coven journey to find Osisi. Sceptical about the possibility of being enchanted by creepy crawlies? Be rest-assured that the personalities Okorafor endows these creatures with will have a lasting effect on your feelings towards them.

 

Book Three? Yes Please!

Rather than say that the writing of Sunny And The Mysteries Of Osisi is consistent with its prequel, What Sunny Saw In The Flames, I will say that Okorafor has grown as a writer. The places, people, insects, battles, history and culture were better fleshed out. Though the focus is more on Sunny and Leopard Knocks, Okorafor delves into issues in the real world, bringing up such an important and often ignored conversation on confraternaties. The reader feels more grounded in the mystical world and, like Sunny, is no longer a newbie to Leopard Knocks.

Okorafor is brilliant because she leaves spaces in this book from which the narrative can, and will, be continued. On finishing this novel, I engaged in a twitter conversation with author where she confirmed that though not yet written, a third installation is in the plans. Patience is a virtue I have long sought to acquire. Now is a good time to start practicing. Whenever she chooses to deliver, my very un-young adult self will be first in line to revisit Sunny’s universe.

 

An Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Cassava Republic, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Niki. Nnedi Okorafor's Sunny And The Osisi Mysteries will be released March 26, 2018.



Notes

a The Oha Coven comprises of Sunny, Sasha, Orlu and Chichi - all adolescents connected to the magical world otherwise referred to as Leopard Knocks. Meet the squad in our review of the prequel here.

b An article by Wellington (2007) on the emergence of student cult groups in Nigeria and their rampant menancing/criminal activties.

c A research article by Arhedo, Aluede and Adomeh on the 'Predictive Factors in Undergraduates' Involvement in Campus Secret Cults in Public Universities in Edo State of Nigeria.'

 

Fiery Rebirth

By Niki

A review of What Sunny Saw In The Flames by Nnedi Okorafor.

Image:  Niki  for  The Book Banque .

Image: Niki for The Book Banque.

Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames is more than just a title; it is also the foundation of the story centred on Sunny. The prologue shows Sunny looking into the flame of a candle during a much too frequent power cut in her family home in Aba, Nigeria. Written in first person, the reader experiences all the choices she makes in getting closer to the flame, and is drawn by the shock and horror of the scene unfolding before her eyes. Much like Sunny, the reader is surprised by the flame that catches her long blonde hair; burns 75 percent of it and shrinks it to a short afro.

The burning of her hair and its transition from “lovely, long” to an afro is metaphorical of the development that occurs in Sunny’s life following the fiery revelation. Admittedly, being American born, an only daughter and an albino, she is already othered in her everyday life. When at school, her skin and accent set her apart from schoolmates. At home, she is isolated by the fact that she is the only girl. Her skin, being sensitive to sunlight, prevents her from gaining camaraderie with her boisterous brothers who enjoy football. Distinction, to Sunny, is thus nothing new.

 

The Age Of Responsibility

At age twelve, the discovery in the flame causes a great shift Sunny’s developing adolescent psyche. Sunny’s eventual pack of friends, The Oha Coven - Sasha, Orlu and Chichi - are also adolescents connected to the magical world otherwise referred to as Leopard Knocks. Sasha, like Sunny, is an Akátáa whereas Orlu and Chichi are born and bred Aba children. The other three, unlike Sunny, have however had knowledge of their Leopard identity from birth. As such, they are a stable community in which Sunny can navigate the mental upheaval that learning to have a dual life brings.

Otherwise publishedb as Akata Witch, Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw In The Flames is often dubbed by some critics as the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” Whilst I grimace at this comparison, there are indeed some parallels between the two fantasy fiction series. Sunny, much like Rowling’s Harry Potter, is young and vulnerable at the point of discovering her supernaturalism. Where Harry is bullied at home and finds respite at school, home and school are, however, both places of tension for Sunny. It takes her initiation into the Leopard Knocks to discover the possibility of fitting in.

The shared age bracket between the coven also means that the stresses of adolescence — bullying, puberty, first crushes — are also shared. The coven is destined to fight an evil force wreaking havoc in the human world. Their youthfulness is presented as a war tactic rather than a disadvantage. It is used to distract the enemy so he is blindsided when they unleash their true strength. Magic, in this Young Adult novel, is not trifled with but rather, is presented as a huge responsibility.

 

Money Makes All World Go Round

"Chittim is the currency of Leopard people. Chittim is always made of metal (copper, bronze, silver and gold) and always shaped like curved roads. The most valuable are the large copper ones, which are about the size of an orange and thick as an adult’s thumb. The smallest ones are the size of a dove’s egg. Least valuable are chittim made of gold. When chittim fall, they never do harm. So one can stand in a rain of chittim, and never get hit. There is only one way to earn chittm: by gaining knowledge and wisdom. The smarter you become, the better you process knowledge into wisdom, the more chittim will fall and thus the richer you will be.

— Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong"

What Sunny Saw In The Flames, p. 44

Something intriguing — or arguably confusing — about fantasy is the author’s ability to “open strange doors” and craft mystical worlds and words. Crafting mystical worlds could be relatively tricky as the author tries to create the extraordinary without leaving the reader feeling like they are reading something ridiculous. The author also tends to fight against moulding stereotypes; in order to present the world in a balanced manner - one with the good, bad and in betweens. If in no other way, Okorafor creates a realistic society in Leopard Knocks by creating a currency system.

From the excerpt alone, the reader can see differences in how currency is gained and in what is deemed valuable. In What Sunny Saw In The Flames, currency is gained through wisdom. This allows for Sunny and friends, in their young age, to acquire currency to navigate the scholastic and daily Leopard Knocks needs. This is also a system that gives all the citizens the ability to earn from the moment of coming into full Leopard identity.

By simply passing the initial Leopard test, you are rewarded with chittim. This then allows you to purchase books and transport services that aid one’s understanding and navigation of the new world. Knowledge, as a foundation for wealth acquisition, takes away the role of luck and inheritance that non-mystical humans sometimes rely on. However, as with all societies, mystical or not, there are individuals within Leopard Knocks who attempt to bypass the process of learning; instead stealing chittim from unsuspecting Leopard People.

 

Crafting Magical Masterpieces

With wisdom as an important trait for all Leopard people to possess, the Obi Library is situated at the centre of Leopard Knocks. Leopard Knocks is, however, just one of many hidden worlds of magic that exist around the world. The second created is on Zuma Rock in Abuja, Nigeria. Whilst Leopard Knocks is mostly inhabited by residents and natives of the region, Zuma Rock is the meeting ground of all Leopard People across Nigeria. It is the capital of the Nigerian Leopard country.

In the Leopard community, there are four levels before one attains full magical autonomy. Sunny and friends are at the beginning and are trained and individually mentored in Anatov - fourth level Leopards’ huts rather than in a school structure. This means that rather than get lost within larger classrooms, Leopard children are closely monitored throughout their education, working in small groups or one-on-one with mentors. With this system, there is a good level of accountability.

Additionally, Leopard children are intentionally exposed to violence. The choosing of their ‘Juju Knife’ — perhaps an equivalent of the western magic wand — comes with a degree of pain. Despite the unconventional nature of Leopard living, there remains a gender bias which Sunny combats when she takes to the field as a footballer in a historically all-boys match at Zuma Rock. Sunny, despite being one of the better players across both teams on the field, has to fight to play a sport she so dearly loves. Here, ability transcending gender is a micro-theme, and the cultural sexisms of Nigeria are reflected.

 

What Dissatisfaction Is This?

What Sunny Saw In The Flames is crafted in the minute details. Okorafor pays so much attention to how the normal and mystical worlds are formed; differentiating them without taking out the cultural identities of Nigeria that make this narrative Nigerian-specific. A reader of this Young Adult novel will walk into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. By the end of the read, the unfamiliar is bound to become something one can navigate. It may still fall outside your purview but will sure not feel so alien. This, here, is the magic of Okorafor’s writing.

The only problem, I find, lies in the last few pages where the incident of fighting the evil the Oha Coven has been groomed for occurs. These pages feel rushed, almost like a blur. It is a departure from the detailed narrative that makes up the majority of the book. It feels like a blink is all it might take to miss the end. Nevertheless, my much older self thoroughly enjoyed falling into this read — though it has been marketed as a book for 12-16 year olds. What Sunny Saw In The Flames has a certain freshness and a Nigerian aspect to it that is endearing.

 

Have you read Nnedi Okorafor's What Sunny Saw In The Flames or any of her other books? How did you find it/them? Is fantasy ficiton your thing? Tell us!



Notes

a A Yoruba term used to define African Americans. It is also sometimes used derogatorily to define African Americans as “bush animals.”

b What Sunny Saw In The Flames was published in Nigeria and the UK by Cassava Republic Press in 2013. It was also published in the US as Akata Witch by Speak.