Read by Yetide Badaki
“‘Then you’re from here and there,’” says the Junkman in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. The first book in the eponymous series stunningly narrated by Yetide Badaki, tells the tale of Sunny, a girl who sees disaster in the flames of a candle and lives her life constantly straddling borderlines.
Sunny is an albino Nigerian girl who lived in America for most of her life before recently returning to her parents’ home country. And if that wasn’t enough of a contradictory jumble of life events already, Sunny soon finds out she is a Free Agent, a Leopard person with magical powers born to parents with no powers at all. “‘One who walks between,’” says her friend Orlu, perfectly explaining the tension Sunny experiences as she tries to walk between her life’s many contradictions with balance.
The narration is also something that, “walks between.” With the many different cultures and identities to portray amongst a diverse cast of characters, Badaki has no small task before her. Yet she is able to evoke each so precisely it is as if hearing the individual characters speak. She slips in and out of speech and narration without a hitch, keeping you listening with interest so that even the narrative outside of dialogue takes on a character of its own. Badaki has an impressive résumé including a role as the goddess Bilquis on American Gods, extensive stage roles including at the Victory Gardens Theater, and an MFA in theater from Illinois State University. Though she takes care to make her narration part of the scenery, one could never say her voice disappears into the background.
After some startling events that reveal Sunny is more than just your average girl, she quickly picks up her companions in the form of Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. She goes through a terrifying initiation ceremony and learns of the hidden magical city, Leopard Knocks, within her own city that requires the crossing of a dangerous bridge to enter. The magic in Akata Witch is melded into the surrounding world, unnoticed by the Lambs—non-magical people—who surround Sunny.
Okorafor’s juju is a step beyond the wands and dragons of recent popular fantasy. In one scene Sunny cracks open the skull of a sheep on her kitchen countertop while trying to work a spell that will help her sneak out. Teenage angst combined with the power to do strange and unusual things is a heady rush for these characters, one they must learn to handle responsibly, particularly as the world they thought they knew steadily becomes darker. Okorafor has created uniquely terrifying ghouls in the shape of masquerades who rise out of termite mounds.
Compared to the imagination and style of the Harry Potter series, Akata Witch goes a step further. Where Harry Potter was the answer to a long line of traditional English tales, Akata Witch brings to popular consumption the mythologies of Nigeria and her people.
By the final showdown with a child-killer who has a dark connection to Sunny’s family’s past, Sunny and her companions prove that they have what it takes to fight and are willing, but there are so many questions left to be answered still in the darkness…and in the sequels.
By Emily Cahill