Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.
My Summary: (reposted from my 2016 favorites post) Nigerian American (Igbo) 12-year-old Sunny was born in the U.S. but moved to Nigeria at age 9. Sunny has a hard time fitting in at school because she’s American-born (“akata” is a pejorative/slur Nigerians use for Black Americans and foreign-born Black people) and an albino, to boot. Then, her life takes a dramatic turn when she finds out that she’s a free agent Leopard Person, someone with gifted magical abilities. Alongside three friends, she learns about magical history, juju, and more, all while trying to hide this other life from her parents. But her magical powers aren’t just for fun and show, and she’s soon recruited to track a serial killer.
I’ve had all of Nnedi Okorafor’s books on my TBR for a while and decided to pick up Akata Witch for #DiversityDecBingo.
Some people have compared this book to Harry Potter, but that’s like comparing apples and oranges and doesn’t do Akata Witch justice. Sure, there is friendship and magic and a dangerous villain, but its approach to magic is vastly different and doesn’t follow a Eurocentric tradition.
Before I go into depth about the magical elements, I’d like to talk a bit about the characters.
Sunny, our main character, is a second generation Nigerian American, and I totally relate to her experience as a second gen person going back to the motherland. I’m decently fluent in Mandarin and Taiwanese, but whenever I visit Taiwan, I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb, from my fashion sense to my not-quite-fluid speech (I still talk to my family in Mandarin/Taiwanese, but not enough these days). Sunny’s issue of being “too American” for people back in the motherland is both frustrating and relatable.
Sunny also appeals to me as a fellow nerd, if I may call her that. She enjoys learning about magic and is energized by learning, which is totally me. Her mundane school assignments bore her, but her extracurricular magic lessons engage her interest and are among the bright points in her life. School was okay-ish for me as far as being interesting, but I did a lot of extracurricular reading for leisure, especially during college, before I added Asian American studies as a second major and was silently suffering through engineering. My extracurricular reading during those years was largely non-fiction and academic texts, and while that probably sounds extremely dull to most people, it was what kept me going and led me to finally admit that I wasn’t happy with my major and needed to change something.
Aside from being a nerd, Sunny is also a good soccer player. She squares off against boys and proves that girls can do as good as or better than boys.
Sunny’s three friends and fellow students are also Nigerian or Nigerian American. They have their own distinct personalities and specialties/talents that create a unique dynamic for the group. They bicker and tease but they also have one another’s backs and learn to work together. I really liked the portrayal of their friendships.
The four of them also get paired up romantically, two sets of girl-and-boy couples, which is kind of heteronormative, but that’s not a huge part of the story, which focuses more on them developing their powers and sense of maturity and responsibility. However, the narrative did get sexist and cisnormative during certain scenes.
Ironically, there is a named non-binary character in the book, who is genderfluid between male and female with alternating she/her and he/him pronouns, but she is only mentioned in passing and isn’t even human but rather a giant, intelligent, and magically gifted spider. I’m leery of the fact that the only non-binary character is non-human, but at the same time his character’s concept is also intriguing to me, and I wish the author had given more information on her. I’m hoping he appears in the sequel.
Now, for the magic. Although there are rules to how magic operates that govern everyone, there is still a lot of room for individual style to show through. Different Leopard People approach magic differently and have different proclivities and innate talents.
Instead of the classroom setting like in Harry Potter, the students have individual mentors. Their learning process is much more organic, the pace set by each individual’s own progress rather than by some arbitrary standard, which feels more like my ideal type of learning environment. Their use of magic is very much personalized and unique, so no two people perform the same exact magic, and there is more than one way to achieve a goal. For assignments, they’re sent to complete various quests and tasks that test their mettle and their skill on the fly.
On top of having very hands-on assignments, they are not given grades for what they do, nor do they take standardized tests. Instead, they earn and collect chittim, rods made of various kinds of metals, which materialize out of thin air and can be traded for various things. Chittim can only be gained through learning. For this reason, money and material things do not rule the world of Leopard People, knowledge does. I thought this was a wonderful concept, though I’m biased because I happen to love learning a lot.
The one thing that did bother me about the fantasy elements was that magical disabled person trope was used. Sunny’s power is tied to her albinism, and her photosensitivity due to albinism is also magically cured. In general, a Leopard Person’s disability reflects their power. There’s a more thorough and nuanced review of these elements and the representation of albinism in the book written by a POC with albinism here.
Recommendation: Recommended for the strong and likable heroine, the realistic and touching friendships, and the highly original fantasy worldbuilding. Would not recommend it if you are looking for accurate albinism/disability representation.