The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

in Reviews

When I began concentrating on seeking out new SF authors of color, I saw Nnedi Okorafor’s name come up repeatedly - though sometimes it was Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, the name she used when a few of her early novels were published. Until recently, the Seattle Public Library’s online catalog search was quite terrible, and not knowing the exact author name to search for was but one of many obstacles to finding the right book. But I got my hands on one eventually.

Okorafor is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, with frequent trips to Nigeria to maintain ties there. Her books tend to be set in West Africa, when they’re not set in fantastic fictional lands. The Shadow Speaker

is her second novel. It’s set in the same universe as her debut, Zahrah the Windseeker, and while it’s difficult to tell from short plot summaries, I believe most of her other novels are set there as well.

This universe is post-apocalyptic not-too-distant future. Yes, another post-apocalyptic YA novel. But Okorafor’s apocalypse is not like most others. It started when a powerful ecoterrorist created what he called Peace Bombs, designed to counteract nuclear missiles. The exact nature of the Peace Bombs is never clearly explained, but it seems they are at least partly the product of magic belonging to a world called Ginen, a kind of other dimension with ties to Earth, and their inventor declared they would create such a diversity of humankind that war would be impossible - there would be too many groups for anyone to choose sides. At any rate, a massive launch of nuclear weapons and subsequent release of Peace Bombs created an event known as The Great Change. In the world after the Great Change, landscapes were transformed, places that were once far away have become connected, and forests or lakes might spring up overnight, or disappear just as quickly. Ginen and Earth are much more connected than they once were, and there are rumors of other worlds one can also get to. And humans have been transformed, too. Some humans, at least, are born with special powers.

14-year-old Ejii is such a person, growing up in Niger after the Great Change. She’s a shadow speaker, which means she has unusual perception - she has very good eyesight, and can understand things spoken by shadows, ghosts of the dead. Or least, she’s supposed to be able to understand them. When a fiery and powerful woman named Saurinaya Jaa wants Ejii to travel with her to a meeting in the mysterious Ginen, Ejii faces a choice. Shadow speakers are driven to travel as their powers develop, but traveling alone after the Change is always dangerous, and even more so for shadow speakers. Ejii’s mother forbids her to go, and Ejii herself is afraid of what might happen to her outside her village, but the shadows insist her presence is vital to preventing a great war between Ginen and Earth.

The story, of course, would be less interesting if Ejii chose to stay home. Ejii faces a lot of danger, from hostile people and forces, to her own growing powers. Along the way we get tantalizing glimpses of the sprawling world that Okorafor has built. And I believe it is only the second SF book I’ve read with a Muslim main character - and I confess I never did finish Midnight’s Children. Okorafor’s writing style is direct and evocative. Ejii’s not the most charismatic character, but as her relationships with Jaa and her other traveling companions developed, I warmed to her.

So, I was enjoying the book pretty well, and then the main villain showed up, and he’s extremely fat, and described uncritically as disgusting and offensive. I am really, really ready to never again see fatness used as a shorthand for greed, wastefulness, moral corruption or being emotionally damaged - or all at the same time, in this case. I know y’all read Dune at an impressionable age and insulting fat people for fun is practically a national pastime at this point, but it’s time to move on. Work a little harder, pick a less obvious/overused/hurtful-to-actual-people metaphor. Mr. Glueskin in Half-World comes to mind as an effective alternative that manages to capture all those character elements (and bonus terrifying gruesomeness!). Consumption is still an important part of what makes him so awful, but he’s made of glue, not fat, and he’s paired with a protagonist who’s been picked on for her weight. See how that works?

Now, I finished Shadow Speaker, and there’s still a lot I like about, and I definitely plan on reading Who Fears Death

soon, but I really hope this device is not a trend on Okorafor’s part, because I don’t want to start a book already dreading part of what I’ll be reading. I mean, why else am I avoiding all but the most carefully-vetted books by white dudes these days?