Saturday, November 10, 2007

Book Review: The Shadow Speaker


The Shadow Speaker
by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

In a world where everything is changing, Ejii is one of the changed. Ejii is a shadow speaker, one who can commune with the shadows and hear their advice and warnings. There are many types of metahumans on Earth in 2070: shadow speakers like Ejii, windseekers, who have wings and can fly, rainmakers, who can bring rain and control the weather, and shape shifters. The metahumans are mutations caused by the Great Change, when the Earth was changed by nuclear war and Peace Bombs,

Ejii's childhood was warped by the strong influence of her father, Chief Ugabe, a cruel and dictatorial leader who ruled the town of Kwàmfà in Niger, and by her father's death. Her father took it upon himself to rule in the name of Jaa, the Red Queen, and everything he did he said was in her name. When Ejii was nine, Jaa returned to Kwamfa and put an end to this by cutting off Chief Ugabe's head in front of the whole town, including Ejii.

Now, five years later, Jaa is leaving Kwàmfà. The shadows tell Ejii that she must go with Jaa to save the Earth, so against her mother's wishes, she sets off into the desert to follow the Red Queen. On this perilous journey she will come face to face with terrifying creatures, make new friends, travel to another world, and, if all goes well, find herself.

The Shadow Speaker is a richly imagined coming of age story with a theme of empowerment. The book's biggest strength is the characters: author Okorafor-Mbachu breathes life into a fascinating cast of characters: Ejii herself, Jaa and her two husbands, Buji and Gambo, the young rainmaker Dikeogu, and a host of supporting characters. The portrayal of future Niger is interesting, combining highly imaginative world-building with elements of modern Niger projected into the future. However, the imaginative elements were occasionally a little too bizarre for my tastes, and the reasons for the changes weren't always well-explained or believable. In spite of this, The Shadow Speaker is a fresh and enjoyable fantasy that will appeal to teens and adults.

It was refreshing to read a fantasy set in a country that I knew very little about, and I was moved to do some research on Niger to find out a little more about the setting. One of the characters in the book is an escaped slave, and I was horrified to discover that slavery apparently still exists in Niger: it was only outlawed in 2003 and it's believed that tens of thousands of people still live in slavery in Niger.
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