A Book Full of Juju: Akata Woman by Nnedi Okorafor

The third in the award winning Nsibidi Script series by Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Woman brings us back to a teenage Sunny, now a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, both as a person and as a powerful juju-working warrior witch. Like the earlier books, this one too makes no bones about what it will be, starting with a straight up warning—

‘Beware. Shine your eye, If you fear juju. If you are uncomfortable around powers that zip, buzz, creep, swell on this planet and beyond., If you don’t want to know. If you don’t want to listen. If you are afraid to go. If you aren’t ready. If. If. If. You are reading this. Good. This book is full of juju.’

And full to the brim it is. With Akata Woman, Okorafor does what she does best, drawing on African mythology and folklore, being free with her rhythm and language, telling a classic hero’s journey set far from the Western canon of fantasy, while always staying readable, aware, intelligent and playful.

Udide, the vast, monstrous spider deity whose ‘body was poetry and nightmare’, was first introduced to us in Akata Warrior, the second book of the series, and has now returned with a seemingly impossible task for Sunny; an impossible but entirely justified demand. Udide wants what is hers—a ghazal, written by the giant spider centuries ago, and so powerful that it can reshape the world. It was stolen from her by a group of young Nimm women who happened to be Chichi’s mother and her cousins when they were much younger. Because Sunny and Chichi are both Nimm women, Udide demands that they find and return her ghazal to her, no matter what the cost to their own safety may be. To get the ghazal, the girls and their friends must travel on The Road, a treacherous and magical path where even Sunny’s spirit face Anyanwu cannot always help them, to another magical land where they must face dangers unknown.

The quest Udide sets for Sunny and her friends is undeniably risky, but refusing it would cost many lives, and leave a huge injustice uncorrected. And Sunny, if anything, is not someone who would let that happen, especially not when Udide reminds her that the ghazal ‘was stolen by your Chichi’s mother; they killed many of my children when it was taken. You and Chichi will get it back for. Me or you will regret it. All of humanity will. And then I will make you regret it more, for I have reason for such revenge. I will write a story you do not want to read.’

(Aside: one must appreciate that Okorafor does not say the powerful juju Udide created is a spell, or even a sonnet, but a ghazal, a form of poetry indigenous to and originating from the Middle East and Persia, and still popular in those regions. This is just one example of Okorafor’s consistent shifting of the centre of fantasy literature away from the west.)

And so Sunny sets off on this frightening journey, while also having to manage complicated elements in her personal life—both human and magical. Her relationship with her father is contentious; she has yet to pass the next level of magical studies, and Anyanwu and she are suffering a sort of emotional fracture. For Sunny to find balance in herself and in her life seems to be almost as much of a challenge as the quest Udide’s set her. Life as a teenager is never easy. Emotions run high as bodies change and new powers emerge, and Sunny is repeatedly stunned by her own evolution as a Nimm warrior and as a young adult woman. Watching Sunny grow into her own will be a heart-warming read for anyone, especially for those who have read and enjoyed the earlier two novels.

It’s been a few years now since Sunny discovered who and what she really was—a Leopard person, a free agent (someone whose parents are non magical Lambs), who carries within her a powerful lineage; and of course, she’s more than just Sunny—she’s Anyanwu, too. Though all Leopard people have a spirit face, Sunny’s is different. She is doubled with Anyanwu, a ‘rare obscene condition for which Sunny had the terrible masquerade Ekwensu to blame’. This doubling is what allows Anyanwu to wander away from Sunny anytime she wants, and to anywhere at all. Sunny has to constantly perform a high wire balancing act between both aspects of her life, and her own self as well.

‘This book is about Sunny going where she belonged but maybe should have thought twice about going. It’s about inherited debt, responsibility, and stepping up…when maybe you shouldn’t.’

The story zips along with plenty of fun twists and turns, scares and surprise, and as usual, Okorafor pulls no punches with current social commentary. ‘Seeing is not the same as caring,’ one character tells Sunny. ‘You’re American; you should understand more than anyone’.

Akata Woman also acknowledges the Covid19 pandemic (Okorafor finished the book during lockdown), and so is timely in the story setting as well. Sunny asks Udide, ‘You are the Great Weaver of Worlds. There is a virus out there. It’s not bad yet, but they’re saying it will be. Can you weave it away?’, expressing what so many of us wish could be done. Sadly, even the great Spider Artist has no quick fix to offer, other than the engagement of a solid, smart story about a young woman growing into who she is meant to be, regardless of how the world turns.

Akata Woman is published by Penguin Young Readers/Viking Books for Young Readers.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction and appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.


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