“Lesson one,” Anatov said. “And this is for all of you. Learn how to learn. Read between the lines. Know what to take and what to discard.”
― Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch
This young-adult culturally diverse fantasy, set within the modern times, centers on Sunny Nwazue, an adolescent born to Nigerian parents in the United States. A couple of years before our story begins, Sunny's family moved back to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, where our primary woman of steel currently lives with them just outside a tiny town. Sunny “confuse[s] people,” she explains in her own voice, not only thanks to this dual background but because she is an albino.
In the course of the world-building story, Sunny discovers that her background and nature are much more confusing than she may have ever dreamed. She and Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, three teens who become her close friends despite her albinism, all realize that they're “Leopard People,” possessed of magic powers —an undeniable fact that they need to hide from the Lambs, or, as Harry Potter would have said, the Mundanes. There is magic and mentors, secret histories and prophecies, and youngsters coming of age as they discover their powers of being witches. The other three are the children of Leopard folks, but Sunny may be a “free agent,” born to Lamb folks and thus a girl misfit —although she eventually learns that there's Leopard magic further back in her family tree. Much of the story focuses on the four learning to spot their magic powers and use them befittingly, with the assistance of Leopard elders who act as their mentors. The elders additionally task them with finding and destroying Black Hat, a mysterious serial murderer who preys on youngsters for magical purposes.
The book’s main strength is its Nigerian setting, which has a range of things from foods to types of magic which will be unfamiliar and possibly intriguing to most American readers, and it's useful to have a Nigerian American protagonist for that reason. You don't notice how overwhelmingly western the fantasy genre is till you browse a non-western witchcraft fantasy story. Sunny Nwazue and her friends are all likeable, with a mischievous style; inevitably they get into trouble, annoying their mentors, as they overreach in using their new powers—but their story, at root, may be a well-trodden one.
All of this is in Nigeria, Africa with distinctive magic and distinctive cultures. This Nigerian story isn't for young kids, however it is not overly dark, either. The characters are well written and the plot comes to a satisfying conclusion, which is clearly set up for the sequel Akata Warrior. I had heard a great deal regarding Okorafor as an author and was expecting something a touch more unusual—but perhaps she held back a little because this was a young adult book focusing on preteen girls, or because she wrote it early in her career.