Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor (Viking 2011, YA, 349 pages)
Twelve-year-old Sunny was born in America, but when she was nine, her parents moved back to their homeland, Nigeria. Not only is she neither American nor Nigerian, she is also albino, African in her features but with pale skin. In other words, Sunny doesn't fit in.
And she has just seen the end of the world in a candle flame.
When Sunny makes friends with three other kids from the margins of her world of school and home, she finds out just how different she really is, but at the same time, she finds a community. She is one of the Leopard people, whose talents for the deep, rich magic of juju sets them apart from the non-magical Lambs who make up most of the world's population.
Together Sunny and her friends must learn to use their varied magical gifts--because they are about to be pitted against a dark and fearsome enemy, hell-bent on raising a spirit that would bring chaos to the world.
(Sorry for the facile comparison, but I can't help it- Harry Potter in Nigeria).
For the setting, the cultural details, and the shear refreshing difference of an African magic, I recommend it highly. It is utterly fascinating to read about an African system of magic--the way it is taught, the stories behind it, the many details of its particulars that Okorafor includes. Much of the book concerns the four main characters finding their Leopard Person mentors, and learning the ways of their magic, and this sort of thing always appeals to me! I especially enjoyed Okorafor's inclusion of excerpts from Sunny's first rough guide to being a Leopard Person--"Fast Facts for Free Agents." It added a nice touch of wry humour.
On the not so plus side, the final confrontation came on too abruptly and passed too quickly--it was a bit of a let down.
Still, this was an engaging book. I didn't quite fall hard for it--I kept wanting to like this more than I was. Okorafor spends so much writing time on showing details of what is around the characters that there doesn't seem to be much space in the story for them to truly flower in my mind. Sunny is an exception to this--she's the focus of the story, and I did feel that I knew and liked her at the end of the book!
This is a "young adult" book," and I kept waiting for the characters to behave in young adultish ways--for their relationships to be developed, for introspection, for emotional tension. But although the characters uses YA language "what a bitch" "I don't need my ass kissed" and "damn," it didn't quite move into the emotional territory of teenage life.
In short, it's a fast and refreshing read, and if you're looking for new imaginative territory in the genre of kids discovering their magical abilities, this would be a book to try.