Disclaimer: I received a free e-book copy in exchange for my open and honest review.
I have had some time to process What Sunny Saw in the Flames by Nnedi Okorafor and my thoughts on the story, characters, and place this book has in the young adult scene. First of all, I need to get this out of the way. I feel like a lot of YA fantasy novels will and do get compared to Harry Potter as the ‘pinnacle or bar’ of good YA fantasy. We must stop comparing literature and stories in this way because it gives all the credit to the stories of privilege (White, western, straight, male/man, able), in this case Harry Potter. What Sunny Saw in the Flames was the book, and soon to be series, I wanted as a young reader. Harry Potter is and remains entirely western centric (the new movie even takes place in the United States), I always wanted to read about magical societies of other countries, regions, and cultures. Britain and the US could not possibly be the world’s center of magic and Nnedi Okorafor challenges this notion in the first book in her series. I am happy the story did not conform to the ‘Harry Potter’ formula.
The book follows Sunny, born to Nigerian parents in the United States, grew up in the US before moving back to Aba, Nigeria. Sunny is albino and is relentlessly made fun of by classmates at schools. She soon meets Chichi through a mutual friend Orlu and her whole world changes! Sunny is a Leopard person, someone with special abilities, someone who can see into the future, someone who can step into the spirit world. Together with Chichi, and her friends Orlu and Sasha, they must confront their destiny, using wit, knowledge, and their Juju abilities. I asked myself many times while reading the book why I was enjoying it so much. I was very engrossed in the plot, but I think what really grabbed me was how identity impacted almost every aspect in this book. And the identities are layered and intersected – gender, nationality, race and perceived race, ability, and the Leopard identity. I am a big proponent of starting the conversation on identity and the systems of power and oppression that may come along at an early age.
The first aspect that stood out to me was how the education structure of the Leopard people consists of vastly different ways of learning and knowing. Their school is not like traditional school – the western version of school. Leopard children each have a mentor and a teacher that guides them through different experiences to help students gain their own knowledge. This reminds me of the discourse in Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire when he talks about banking education versus education as liberation. Instead of telling students what knowledge is valued and important, they create a learning environment where the instructor values the talents the students bring. The Leopard society is all about lifelong and experiential learning. The lessons are real and often brutal but propel Sunny and her friends to fulfill their destiny.
The currency system, tied into the education system, in this series is brilliant! Leopard people gain Chittim in bronze, silver, and gold whenever they gain knowledge or achieve something. Chittim magically fall from the sky in the amount equal to the knowledge acquired. In the Leopard peoples society, Chittim is used to purchase all things, which includes book for more knowledge! I love this concept because I think we can determine a culture/society/institutions true values by where its money is. The core value of the Leopard people is expanding knowledge. They do not subscribe to materials goods or wealth. This is the kind of culture I want to live in!
The Leopard community is not free from discrimination and systems of oppression. I do not want to call is racism, but there is definitely an -ism based on family and blood. Sunny, the main character, is what the community calls a free agent – a Leopard person who does not have parents who are Leopard people. Free agents get mixed response from the community… at best. At the beginning of each chapter, there is an excerpt from a book written for free agents. The tone is rather condescending and treats free agents as ‘less than.’ This sums up much of the cultural view of free agents and as Sunny interacts with the Leopard world, she faces this discrimination and potential oppression. She finds some allies on the way throughout the story and ultimately is able to overcome when many folks doubted her. But even after the final conflict of book 1, I still think Sunny will face discrimination later in the series. Once a free agent, always a free agent.
Nnedi Okorafor also starts a dialogue on gender stereotypes and sexism. The Leopard people are not immune to what culture thinks boys and girls can/should do. This is most prevalent during the chapter of the football tournament.The boys disregard Sunny when they are recruiting to form football teams and she had to undergo more scrutiny and a bigger challenge than the boys to make the team. She passes the challenge and plays in the game, proving she is one of the best football players among the Leopard youth. I feel like the author is setting up a foundation to dive more into stereotypical constructed gender roles in future books and I look forward to see where the conversation goes!
This book has been previously released about five years ago as Akata Witch. But I believe this is the first time it will be published in the UK by Cassava Republic this fall. I love what they did with the cover art for this republishing, although I did enjoy the original art as well. I am actually happy I read this book now and not back in 2011 because the sequel to the book is projected to release next year! I could not imagine waiting that long for the next book. I will be picking it up when it is released! Look for Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor now in the United States and look for What Sunny Saw in the Flames in the UK September 2016.
Final rating: 4.3/5