I have read dozens of fantasy novels for young adults and children (and even a few for adults!) Where are they set? Sometimes in a Europe-like world that isn’t our own; sometimes in England; sometimes in the US. I can’t think of a single one that’s set anywhere in Africa. Nnedi Okorafor’s novel The Shadow Speaker is set in Nigeria, in the year 2070 after the Great Change, and the setting is just one of the fabulous surprises here.
The protagonist, 14-year-old Ejii Ugabe, lives in this future Nigeria. Her world has been altered by nuclear bombs, and also by “Peace Bombs,” which were meant to create where nuclear bombs destroyed. This combination has unleashed magic on the world — a magic of which people are still wary. Most technology has stopped working, except new technology built to capitalize on magic powers. And there are metahumans, including Ejii herself, who can communicate with shadows.
When Ejii was nine, she saw her father beheaded by the warrior queen Sauraniya Jaa. It’s still the event that looms largest in her life, even though — or perhaps because — her father was a tyrant who ruled by oppression. Now Jaa wants Ejii to follow her to another world, to which a portal has opened because of the Great Change. Ejii knows she is headed into trouble, and she quickly realizes that it could mean death. But she follows, seeking her own power and destiny through a journey, as shadow speakers traditionally do. She brings her family’s talking camel (named Onion for his passionate love of onions) for help and company. And along the way, she meets Dikéogu, a boy who was once sold into slavery and is now fiercely free, and a metahuman like, and yet unlike, herself. The companions must face sentient storms, demons, and finally a wildly diverse interplanetary war council before they finally find their place in the world.
Maybe the most interesting thing about this book is the worldbuilding that Okorafor does. It is fantastically detailed, right down to the descriptions of gadgets people use and the way things have changed since the Peace Bombs. For instance, Ejii uses an “e-legba” as a sort of tablet, to keep a journal and to keep track of the weather. I looked it up: Papa Legba is a Haitian voodoo god of ways and paths. Perfect for an internet-adjacent device. There’s also the deep immersion in the futuristic Nigerian setting. Ejii is a Muslim, and the depiction of her faith is complex. Islam is sometimes a source of oppression, as when Ejii’s father requires women to wear a burka and to stay indoors. It is also, however, a source of help and strength, and Ejii herself views it positively. (“My father believed in a religion called Islam,” she says. “But he wasn’t a good Muslim.”)
There are places in this book where the emotion, the connection to the characters, can fall a little flat. But Okorafor never runs out of imagination, from the e-legba to the plant-based world of Ginen. I will definitely look for more of her work. Do you have anything to recommend?