A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.
Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysterious town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity.
Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, merges today’s Nigeria with a unique world she creates. Akata Warrior blends mythology, fantasy, history and magic into a compelling tale that will keep readers spellbound. Available October 3rd from Viking Books for Young Readers.
Onye na-agu edemede a muru ako:
Let the Reader Beware
Greetings from the Obi Library Collective of Leopard Knocks’ Department of Responsibility. We are a busy organization with more important things to do. However, we’ve been ordered to write you this brief letter of information. It is necessary that you understand what you are getting into before you begin reading this book. If you already understand, then feel free to skip this warning and jump right into the continuation of Sunny’s story at Chapter 1.
* * *
Okay, let’s begin.
Let the reader beware that there is juju in this book. “Juju” is what we West Africans like to loosely call magic, manipulatable mysticism, or alluring allures. It is wild, alive, and enigmatic, and it is interested in you. Juju always defies definition. It certainly includes all uncomprehended tricksy forces wrung from the deepest reservoirs of nature and spirit. There is control, but never absolute control. Do not take juju lightly, unless you are looking for unexpected death.
Juju cartwheels between these pages like dust in a sandstorm. We don’t care if you are afraid. We don’t care if you think this book will bring you good luck. We don’t care if you are an outsider. We just care that you read this warning and are thus warned. This way, you have no one to blame but yourself if you enjoy this story.
Now, this girl Sunny Nwazue lives in southeastern Nigeria (which is considered Igboland) in a village not far from the thriving city of Aba. Sunny is about thirteen and a half now, of the Igbo ethnic group, and “Naijamerican” (which means “Nigerian American”—American-born to Nigerian parents, as if you couldn’t consult the Internet for that information). Her two older brothers, Chukwu and Ugonna, were born in Nigeria. Sunny, on the other hand, was born in New York City. She and her family lived there until she was nine, when they moved back to Nigeria. This means she speaks Igbo with an American accent and says “soccer” instead of “football.” It also means she has to sometimes deal with classmates calling her “akata” when trying to get on her nerves.
“Akata” is a word some of us Nigerians use to refer to and, more often, degrade black Americans or foreign-born blacks. Some say the word means “bush animal,” others say it means “cotton picker,” others say “wild animal” or “fox”—no one can agree. Whatever the meaning, it’s not a kind word. Ask anyone who has ever been called an akata by Nigerians for the reasons Nigerians call people akata and you won’t find one person who enjoys the experience.
Oh, and Sunny also happens to have albinism (an inherited genetic condition that reduces the amount of melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair, and/or eyes), but that is neither here nor there.
Let the reader be aware that a year and a half ago, Sunny Nwazue finally became conscious of her truest self and was officially brought into the local Leopard society. For clarity, let us quote the staple tome Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong:
A Leopard Person goes by many names around the world. The term “Leopard Person” is a West African coinage, derived from the Efik term “ekpe,” “leopard.” All people of mystical true ability are Leopard People.
We Leopard folk go by many other names in many other languages. A core characteristic of being a Leopard Person is that one of your greater natural “flaws” or your uniqueness is the key to your power. For Sunny, it was in her albinism. She’s slowly learning what this means. Also, to be a Leopard Person is to have a spirit face; this is your truest face, the one that you will always have. And to expose your spirit face to people is like trotting around in public in the buff. Sunny is slowly getting used to the existence, privacy, and power of her spirit face (whose name is Anyanwu), as well.
Last year, Sunny learned that she was a free agent, one where the spirit of the Leopard had skipped a generation. Free agents don’t have Leopard parents who have taught them who they are from birth. A free agent knows nothing of Leopard society—be it other Leopard People, knowledge of juju and the mystical world, or exposure to mystical places like Leopard Knocks. They have just become aware of their Leopardom and know what it is to have their world become chaos.
Sunny learned about her Leopardom when she was twelve. Her mysterious grandmother on her mother’s side was the Leopard Person in Sunny’s family, and if that grandmother hadn’t been murdered by the student she was mentoring, she’d have brought Sunny in properly.
Be aware that Sunny’s world is now occupied by mystical people and also beings only Leopard People can see, such as masquerades, tungwas, bush souls, ghost hoppers, and so on. This is especially true in the local Leopard society haven called Leopard Knocks, an isolated piece of land conjured by the ancestors and surrounded by a rushing river inhabited by a sneaky, vindictive water beast. The entrance to it is a bridge as narrow as an old telephone pole that runs over the river.
Understand that in order to appreciate this book, you must comprehend what a masquerade is and is not. Masquerades are not men dressed in elaborate masks and costumes of raffia, cloth, beads, and such. Here is a quote about them from the book Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong:
Ghosts, witches, demons, shape-shifters, and masquerades are all real. And masquerades are always dangerous. They can kill, steal your soul, take your mind, take your past, rewrite your future, bring the end of the world, even. As a free agent you will have nothing to do with the real thing, otherwise you face certain death. If you are smart, you will leave true masquerades up to those who know what to do with juju.
Masquerades come in many sizes; they can be the size of a house or a bumblebee. They can even be invisible. They can be a dusty sheet draped over a heap of moths, look like a mound of dried grass, take the form of a spinning shadow, have many wooden heads. You really can never know until you know.
Please note, however, that when the author of the book just quoted, Isong Abong Effiong Isong, was a teenager, she harassed a Mmuo Ifuru (flower masquerade) dwelling in her garden one too many times. That masquerade went on to make Isong’s life a living hell for three years, and Isong’s bias against them is reflected in her book. Not all masquerades are angry, mean, evil, or dangerous. Many are quite kind and beautiful; some are neither, wanting nothing to do with living beings, and so on.
Know that the more Sunny learns to read that Nsibidi book she bought last year, the more she will see. Nsibidi is a magical writing script from southwestern Nigeria. One must read deep Nsibidi with great care and skill; Nsibidi words carelessly read can lead to death. Be aware that as you read about Sunny, your own world may shift, expand, clarify, and grow more vibrant. No need to check beneath your bed every night, but you might want to make sure all the books in your bedroom are truly books.
Beware because this young lady Sunny has close friends who work juju as well. And when the four of them are together, they can save or destroy the world. Chichi is the girl who lives with her mother in the small hut sitting between the big modern houses, despite the fact that she is royalty from her mother’s side and that her absent father is a famous highlife and afrobeat singer. Chichi could be older or younger than Sunny, who knows, who cares? Chichi may be short in stature, but her mouth and strong will rival the most successful market woman. Chichi’s photographic memory and intense restlessness are the keys to her personal talent.
Orlu, who’s almost fifteen, is the boy next door whom Sunny didn’t talk to until destiny blossomed. Orlu is calm with an even temperament, qualities Sunny kind of likes in a boy. His dyslexia led him to his astounding ability to instinctively undo any juju he encounters. The best way to know if there is magical trouble is to watch Orlu’s hands.
Sasha, who’s fifteen, is from African America, the South Side of Chicago, to be exact. His parents sent him to Naija (slang for “Nigeria”) because of his issues with authority, especially authority in the form of police. He’s like Chichi: fast, hyper-intelligent, and he can remember like a computer. He’s trouble in the Lamb (non-magical) world, but beautifully gifted in the Leopard world.
Understand that not long after entering the Leopard society, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha had to face a nasty ritual killer named Black Hat Otokoto, who was intent on bringing Ekwensu, the most powerful, ugliest, evilest masquerade, to the mundane world. Since they’re all still alive, you can assume that things didn’t go completely wrong with their encounter. Lastly, Sugar Cream, the head librarian at the Obi Library (the focal point of Leopard society), has, to Sunny’s delight, finally agreed to be Sunny’s mentor.
This book claims nothing, save that it strives to tell the story of the further comings and goings of this free agent girl named Sunny Nwazue.
Sincerely, The Obi Library Collective of Leopard Knocks’
Department of Responsibility
It was stupid to come out here at night, especially considering the disturbing dreams Sunny had been having. The dreams Sunny suspected were not dreams at all. However, her mentor, Sugar Cream, had challenged her, and Sunny wanted to prove her wrong.
Sunny and Sugar Cream had gotten into one of their heated discussions; this one was about modern American girls and their general lack of skills in the kitchen. The old, twisted woman had looked condescendingly at Sunny, chuckled, and said, “You’re so Americanized, you probably can’t even make pepper soup.”
“Yes, I can, ma,” Sunny insisted, annoyed and insulted. Pepper soup wasn’t hard to make at all.
“Oh, sure, but you’re a Leopard Person, aren’t you? So your soup should be made with tainted peppers, not those weak things the Lambs like to grind up and use.”
Sunny had read a recipe for tainted pepper soup in her Fast Facts for Free Agents book but really, truthfully, honestly, she couldn’t live up to Sugar Cream’s challenge of making it. When making tainted pepper soup, if you made the tiniest mistake (like using table salt instead of sea salt), it resulted in some scary consequence like the soup becoming poisonous or exploding. This had discouraged Sunny from ever attempting to make it.
Nevertheless, she wasn’t about to admit her inability to make the soup. Not to Sugar Cream, whom she’d had to prove herself to by defeating one of the most powerful criminals the Leopard community had seen in centuries. Sunny was a mere free agent, a Leopard Person raised among Lambs and therefore ignorant of so much. Still, her chi who showed itself as her spirit face was Anyanwu, someone great in the wilderness. But really, what did it matter if you had been a big badass in the spirit world? Now was now, and she was Sunny Nwazue. She still had to prove to the Head Librarian that she was worthy of having her as a mentor.
So instead, Sunny said she’d leave the Obi Library grounds, despite the fact that it was just after midnight, to go pick three tainted chili peppers from the patch that grew down the dirt road. Sugar Cream had only rolled her eyes and promised to have all the other ingredients for the soup on her office desk when Sunny returned. Including some freshly cut goat meat.
Sunny left her purse and glasses behind. She was especially glad to leave her glasses. They were made of green feather-light plastic, and she still wasn’t used to them. Over the last year, though being a Leopard Person had lessened her sensitivity to light, it hadn’t done a thing for her eyesight. She’d always had better eyes than most with albinism, but that didn’t mean they were great.
After her eye exam last month, her doctor had finally said what Sunny knew he’d eventually say: “Let’s get you some glasses.” They were the type that grew shaded in the sunlight, and she hated them. She liked seeing true sunshine, though it hurt her eyes. Nevertheless, lately her eyes’ inability to keep out sunlight had begun to make the world look so washed out that she could barely see any detail. She’d even tried wearing a baseball cap for a week, hoping the bill would shade her eyes. It didn’t help at all, so glasses it was. But whenever she could, she took them off. And this was the best thing about the night.
“I hope the goat meat is hard for her to get at this hour,” Sunny muttered to herself as she stomped out the Obi Library’s entrance onto the narrow dirt road.
Not a minute later, she felt a mosquito bite her ankle. “Oh, come on,” she muttered. She walked faster. The night was hot and cloying, a perfect companion to her foul mood. It was rainy season, and the clouds had dropped an hour’s worth of rain the day before. The ground had expanded, and the trees and plants were breathing. Insects buzzed excitedly, and she heard small bats chirping as they fed on them. Back the other way, toward the entrance of Leopard Knocks, business was in full swing. It was the hour when both the quieter and noisier transactions were made. Even from where she was, she could hear a few of the noisier ones, including two Igbo men loudly discussing the limitations and the unreasonable cost of luck charms.
Sunny picked up her pace. The sooner she got to the field where the wild tainted peppers grew, the sooner she could get back to the Obi Library and show Sugar Cream that she indeed had no idea how to make tainted pepper soup, one of the most common dishes of Nigeria’s Leopard People.
Sunny sighed. She’d come to this field several times with Chichi to pick tainted peppers. They grew wild here and were not as concentrated as the ones sold in the Leopard Knocks produce huts and shops, but Sunny liked having functioning taste buds, thank you very much. It was Chichi who always made the soup, and Chichi liked it mild, too. Plus, the tainted peppers here didn’t cost a thing, and you could get them at any time, day or night.
It was the time of the year when the peppers grew fat, or so Orlu and Chichi said. Sunny had only learned of Leopard Knocks’ existence within the last year and a half. This was far from enough time to know the habits of the wild tainted peppers that grew near the fields of flowers used to make juju powder. Chichi and Orlu had been coming to Leopard Knocks all their lives. So Sunny was inclined to believe them. The peppers loved heat and sun, and despite the recent rains, there had been plenty of both.
When she reached the patch, she gathered two nice red ones and put them in her heat-resistant basket. The small patch of tainted peppers glowed like a little galaxy. The yellow-green flash of fireflies was like the occasional alien ship. Beyond the glowing peppers was a field of purple flowers with white centers, which would be picked, dried, and crushed to make many types of the common juju powders. Sunny admired the sight of the field in the late night.
She had been paying attention; she even noticed a tungwa lazily floating yards away just above some of the flowers. Round and large as a basketball, its thin brown skin grazed the tip of a flower. “Ridiculous thing,” she muttered as it exploded with a soft pop, quietly showering tufts of black hair, bits of raw meat, white teeth, and bones on the pepper plants. She knelt down to look for the third pepper she wanted to pick. Two minutes later, she looked up again. All she could do was blink and stare.
“What… the… hell?” she whispered.
She clutched her basket of tainted peppers. She had a sinking feeling that she needed all her senses right now. She was light-headed from the intensity of her confusion… and her fear.
“Am I dreaming?”
Where the field of purple flowers had been was a lake. Its waters were calm, reflecting the bright half moon like a mirror. Did the peppers exude some sort of fume that caused hallucinations? She wouldn’t be surprised. When they were overly ripe, they softly smoked and sometimes even sizzled. But she was not only seeing a lake, she smelled it, too— jungly, with the tang of brine, wet. She could even hear frogs singing.
Sunny considered turning tail and running back to the Obi Library. Best to pretend you don’t see anything, a little voice in her head warned. Go back! In Leopard Knocks, sometimes the smartest thing to do when you were a kid who stumbled across some unexplainable weirdness was to turn a blind eye and walk away.
Plus, she had her parents to consider. She was out late on a Saturday evening and she was in Leopard Knocks, a place non-Leopard folk including her parents weren’t allowed to know about, let alone set foot on. Her parents couldn’t know about anything Leopard related. All they knew was that Sunny was not home, and it was due to something similar to what Sunny’s mother’s mother used to do while she was alive.
Sunny’s mother was probably worried sick but wouldn’t ask a thing when Sunny returned home. And her father would angrily open the door and then wordlessly go back to his room where he, too, would finally be able to sleep. Regardless of the tension between her and her parents, Sunny quietly promised them in her mind that she would remain safe and sound.
But Sunny’s dreams had been crazy lately. If she started having them while awake and on her feet, this would be a new type of problem. She had to make sure this wasn’t that. She brought out her house key and clicked on the tiny flashlight she kept on the ring. Then she crept to the lip of the lake for a better look, pushing aside damp, thick green plants that were not tainted peppers or purple flowers. The ground stayed dry until she reached the edge of the water where it was spongy and waterlogged.
She picked up and threw a small stone. Plunk. The water looked deep. At least seven feet. She flashed her tiny weak beam across it just in time to see the tentacle shoot out and try to slap around her leg. It missed, grabbing and pulling up some of the tall plants instead. Sunny shrieked, stumbling away from the water. More of the squishy, large tentacles shot out.
She whirled around and took off, managing seven strides before tripping over a vine and then falling onto some flowers, yards from the lake. She looked back, relieved to be a safe distance from whatever was in the water. She shuddered and scrambled to her feet, horrified. She couldn’t believe it. But not believing didn’t make it any less true. The lake was now less than two feet from her, its waters creeping closer by the second. It moved fast like a rolling wave in the ocean, the land, flowers and all, quietly tumbling into it.
The tentacles slipped around her right ankle before she could move away. They yanked her off her feet, as two then three more tentacles slapped around her left ankle, torso, and thigh. Grass ground into her jeans and T-shirt and then bare skin on her back as it dragged her toward the water. Sunny had never been a great swimmer. When she was a young child, swimming was always something done in the sun, so she avoided it. It was nighttime, but she definitely wanted to avoid swimming now.
She thrashed and twisted, fighting terror; panic would get her nowhere. This was one of the first things Sugar Cream had taught her on the first day of her mentorship. Sugar Cream. She’d be wondering where Sunny was. She was almost to the water now.
Suddenly, one of the tentacles let go. Then another. And another. She was… free. She scrambled back from the water, feeling the mud and soggy leaves and flowers mash beneath her. She stared at the water, dizzy with adrenaline-fueled fright. For a moment, she bizarrely saw through two sets of eyes, those of her spirit face and her mortal one. Through them, she simultaneously saw water and somewhere else. The double vision made her stomach lurch. She held her belly, blinking several times. “But I’m okay, I’m okay,” she whispered.
When she looked again, in the moonlight, bobbing at the surface of the lake was a black-skinned woman with what looked like bushy long, long dreadlocks. She laughed a guttural laugh and dove back into the deep. She has a fin, Sunny thought. She giggled. “Lake monsters are real and Mami Wata is real.” Sunny leaned back on her elbows for a moment, shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. Orlu would know about the lake beast; he’d probably know every detail about it from its scientific name to its mating patterns. She giggled some more. Then she froze because there was loud splashing coming from behind her, and the land beneath her was growing wetter and wetter. Sunny dared a look back.
Roiling in the water was what looked like a ball of tentacles filling the lake. The beginnings of a bulbous wet head emerged. Octopus! A massive octopus. It tilted its head back, exposing a car-sized powerful beak. The monster loudly chomped down and opened it several times and then made a strong hacking sound that was more terrifying than if it had roared.
The woman bobbed between her and the monster, her back to Sunny. The beast paused, but Sunny could see it still eyeing her. Sunny jumped up, turned, and ran. She heard the flap of wings and looked up just in time to see a huge dark winged figure zip by overhead. “What?” she breathed. “Is that…” But she had to save her breath for running. She reached the dirt road and, without a look back or up, kept running.
* * *
The pepper soup smelled like the nectar of life. Strong. It was made with tainted peppers and goat meat. There was fish in it, too. Mackerel? The room was warm. She was alive. The pattering of rain came from outside through the window. The sound drew her to wakefulness. She opened her eyes to hundreds of ceremonial masks hanging on the wall—some smiling, some snarling, some staring. Big eyes, bulging eyes, narrow eyes. Gods and spirits of many colors, shapes, and attitudes. Sugar Cream had told her to shut up and sit down for ten minutes. When Sugar Cream left the office to “go get some things,” Sunny must have dozed off.
Now the old woman knelt beside her, carrying a bowl of what Sunny assumed was pepper soup. She was hunched forward, her twisted spine making it difficult for her to kneel. “Since you had such a hard time getting the peppers, I went and bought them myself,” she said. She slowly got up, looking pleased. “I met Miknikstic on the way to the all-night market.”
“He… he was here?” So that was him I saw fly by, she thought.
“Sit up,” Sugar Cream said.
She handed Sunny the bowl of soup. Sunny began to eat, and the soup warmed her body nicely. Sunny had been lying on a mat. She glanced around the floor for the tiny red spiders Sugar Cream always had lurking about in her office. She spotted one a few feet away and shivered. But she didn’t get up. Sugar Cream said the spiders were poisonous, but if she didn’t bother them, they would not bother her. They also didn’t take well to rude treatment, so she wasn’t allowed to move away from them immediately.
“There was a lake,” Sunny said. “Where the tainted peppers and those purple flowers grow. I know it sounds crazy but…” She touched her hair and frowned. She was sporting a medium-length Afro these days, and something was in it. Her irrational mind told her it was a giant red spider, and her entire body seized up.
“You’re fine,” Sugar Cream said with a wave of a hand. “You met the lake beast, cousin of the river beast. I don’t know why it tried to eat you, though.”
Sunny felt dizzy as her attention split between trying to figure out what was on her head and processing the fact that the river beast had relatives. “The river beast has family?” Sunny asked.
Sunny rubbed her face. The river beast dwelled beneath the narrow bridge that led to Leopard Knocks. The first time she’d crossed the bridge it had tried to trick her to her death. If Sasha hadn’t grabbed her by her necklace, it would have succeeded. To think that that thing had family did not set her mind at ease.
“And then it was Ogbuide who saved you from it,” Sugar Cream continued.
Sunny blinked, looking up. “You mean Mami Wata? The water spirit?” Sunny asked, her temples starting to throb. She reached up to touch her head, but then brought her hands down. “My mom always talks about her because she was terrified of being kidnapped by her as a child.”
“Nonsense stories,” Sugar Cream said. “Ogbuide doesn’t kidnap anyone. When Lambs don’t understand something or they forget the real story of things, they replace it with fear. Anyway, you’re still fresh. Most Leopard People know to walk away when they see a lake that should not be where it is.”
“Is there something on my head?” Sunny whispered, working hard not to drop her bowl. She wanted to ask if it was a spider, but she didn’t want to irritate her mentor any more than she already had by nearly dying.
“It’s a comb,” Sugar Cream said.
Relieved, Sunny reached up and pulled it out. “Oooh,” she quietly crooned. “Pretty.” It looked like the inside of an oyster shell, shining iridescent blue and pink, but it was heavy and solid like metal. She looked at Sugar Cream for an explanation.
“She saved you,” she said. “Then she gave you a gift.”
Sunny had been attacked by an octopus monster that roamed around using a giant lake like a spider uses its web. Then she’d been saved by Ogbuide, the renowned deity of the water. Then she’d seen Miknikstic, a Zuma Wrestling Champion killed in a match and turned guardian angel, fly by. Sunny was speechless.
“Keep it well,” Sugar Cream said. “And if I were you, I’d not cut my hair anytime soon, either. Ogbuide probably expects you to have hair that can hold that comb. Also, buy something nice and shiny and go to a real lake or pond or the beach and throw it in. She’ll catch it.”
Sunny finished her pepper soup. Then she endured another thirty minutes of Sugar Cream lecturing her about being a more cautious rational Leopard girl. As Sugar Cream walked Sunny out of the building into the rain, she handed Sunny a black umbrella very much like the one Sunny used to use a little more than a year ago. “Are you all right with crossing the bridge alone?”
Sunny bit her lip, paused, and then nodded. “I’ll glide across.” To glide was to drop her spirit into the wilderness (Leopard slang for the “spirit world”) and shift her physical body into invisibility. She would make an agreement with the air and then zip through it as a swift-moving breeze.
She had first glided by instinct when crossing the Leopard Knocks Bridge for the third time, hoping to avoid the river beast. With Sugar Cream’s subsequent instruction, Sunny had now perfected the skill so expertly that she didn’t emit even the usual puff of warm air when she passed people by. With the help of juju powder, all Leopard People could glide, but Sunny’s natural ability allowed her to glide powder-free. To do it this way was to dangerously step partially into the wilderness. However, Sunny did it so often and enjoyed it so much that she didn’t fret over it.
“You have money for the funky train?”
“I do,” Sunny said. “I’ll be fine.”
“I expect you to prepare a nice batch of tainted pepper soup for me by next week.”
Sunny fought hard not to groan. She’d buy the tainted peppers this time. There was no way she was going back to the field down the road. Not for a while. Sunny held the umbrella over her head and stepped into the warm, rainy early morning. On the way home, she saw plenty of puddles and one rushing river, but thankfully no more lakes.
Excerpted from Akata Warrior, copyright © 2017 by Nnedi Okorafor.