Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.
Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?
I first discovered Akata Witch because of Leigh Bardugo. As one typically does with their favorite authors, I look for books that have been recommended by authors whose writing I admire. Fortunately, I stumbled upon this article by Cosmopolitan last year “Leigh Bardugo Recommends 5 Fantasy and Sci-Fi Books Every Woman Should Read.”
Bardugo describes Akata Witch as “a really delightful heir to Harry Potter. It’s a really perfect read for younger readers who might be looking to get into fantasy.” As someone who grew up loving Harry Potter, I recognized this tremendous compliment and decided to look into the book. As I am a writer of YA fantasy, I felt Akata Witch would be an fun book to dissect for how another author world builds.
I had read The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare and not been impressed by the overwhelming similarities to Harry Potter, so I kept my expectations for Harry Potter-level excellence low. But from the summary, I was getting Wonder Woman: Warbringer vibes, which was written by Leigh Bardugo, so I couldn’t help but be excited.
Before I go any further, let me just say that Akata Witch is an outstanding entry into YA fantasy that I think everyone should read.
I loved this book and am so excited for young readers who will be able to access this book while they are still children. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that much of fantasy that young adults will consume from an early age is set in the Western world and with primarily white characters.
As a young adult, it never bothered me (a hispanic, cis-gendered, straight female) and I don’t think it bothers too many because the power of books is allow readers to step into the shoes of other people, even those who seem so different from ourselves. It’s only as we grow older that we wonder how much more confident or proud we would have felt of our own heritage and the culture of our ancestors if we had seen it in the books that we cherished.
That’s why I’m so excited about this book. It is not just a book that represents progress; it is so much fun that it should appeal to anyone!
The magic world (which I describe in greater detail in the next section) is a fantastic adventure to explore and there are so many great characters that show a range of leopard lifestyles that I think make the magic feel accessible to people from all walks of life, which makes it feel more real and appealing. There’s also great moments of situational humor that I enjoy more than anything else.
Atmospherically, the book feels like it could become a Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film in the style of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro.
The magic system of Akata Witch is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I can understand the Harry Potter (and even Percy Jackson) comparisons, but it does not really come off that Okorafor used the former books as a check-list. Everything in Akata Witch‘s world and magic system is so specific and feels authentic to the country and its environment.
I could actually see how this book leaves it open so that the magical world of Nigeria could fit into that of the HP universe. Instead of wands, the magic people have juju knives. Instead of the witch/wizard vs. muggle dichotomy, Akata Witch has leopard (magic) people and lambs (non-magic).
As witches and wizards in the HP universe can be muggle-born, similarly leopards can be born of lambs. I don’t remember Rowling going into where magic comes from in the HP universe, but in Akata Witch Okorafor explains how magic (or juju as it’s called in her books) is the source of a spiritual awareness or connection.
The protagonist, Sunny, is actually what is called a free agent, which means neither of her parents are leopards. Rather than a magic school à la Hogwarts, young leopards maintain a double-life, going to regular (Lamb) school and independently studying juju with an advisor and, if they’re lucky, a mentor who can better guide them according to their strengths.
Leopards pride themselves on valuing knowledge above all else. Indeed, the economics are divinely (read: mysteriously) arranged so that leopards earn chittim (curved metal rods that act as leopard currency) by learning new things and developing wisdom. It just falls out of the sky no matter where the leopard is at the time–––an aspect of the world that felt more video game-inspired than anything else!
One thing I did not like about this story from a writing perspective is how convenient the major conflict of the story unfolds and resolves. In the back of our heads as we read this story is the child serial killer called the Black Hat. Halfway through the book, Sunny learns she is a leopard and her oha coven (Sunny’s quartet of friends who balance each other in ability and personality) have been brought together to defend the world against the rise of an evil entity.
I also didn’t like how often Sunny would be asking her friends and their teachers/mentors questions and they would tell her to wait and gratification was delayed. It was done too much! It reminds me of my earliest writing adventures when I’d not have the answers as the writer so I’d put it off writing those explanatory scenes by having my characters wait.
Young adults and adults alike can enjoy this book. Admittedly, there are some dark depictions of the harm that befell the child victims of the novel’s villain that may unsettle much younger readers, but these moments are few and far between.
I look forward to getting my hands on the next book Akata Warrior as soon as possible! I’m just annoyed that I got the paperback of the first book because I’m one of those annoying people who likes their books to match on their shelves, so I must suffer waiting for the release of book two’s paperback edition. Rats!
If you’d like to read more YA fantasy that celebrates diversity, I also recommend City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. (Because of my research as I wrote this review, I also believe the Percy Jackson books may nicely compliment Akata Witch. As I’ve never read them, I don’t feel comfortable recommending them.)
Have you read Akata Witch? If so, what’d you think?!