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19 July 2010 @ 07:14 pm
The Shadow Speaker  
I was a little disappointed with Zahrah, the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, largely because of it's combination of travelogue plot and YA coming-of-ageness. The YA bit wasn't really it's fault since its a YA novel, I just find these stories have to work a lot harder to hold my attention now I'm closer to 50 than I am to 15. So I was a little surprised to find that I enjoyed The Shadow Speaker a lot more than Zahrah despite the fact that it's still a coming-of-age YA travelogue of the novel.

I think I liked it better partly because the travelogue plotting was a lot tighter, with most of the incidents en route actually contributing to the overall development of the story instead of being throwaway encounters that could be cut from the novel without trouble. I think the other thing I enjoyed was the unexpected turn Okorafor-Mbachu took the world-building in. Zahrah, the Windseeker was set in the organic technology-based world of Ginen and, although there were hints of some connection to Earth, these were kept very much in the background. The Shadow Speaker opens in a Nigerian town/village in a future where the various worlds have smashed together and you can walk across the Sahara and into Ginen. In this sudden new reality war is brewing between the worlds and the action centres around the journey to and events of a peace-conference. I found this an unusual and refreshing twist to the set-up. Instead of following directly on from Zahrah, the Windseeker and simply exploring more of Ginen, The Shadow Speaker moved events on and radically shook up the status quo on both Earth and Ginen.

It must be said that I found the mixture of magic and technology a little awkward in places. Mostly it worked very well and I was happy to accept a future in which some bits of technology worked and others (e.g. guns) didn't but occasionally I was thrown out of my suspension of disbelief (most notably when one of the characters stated that Ginen was a larger planet than Earth, but the story failed ever to discuss why gravity was apparently the same in both places). There was also an odd passage, in which it was suggested that humans originally migrated from Ginen to Africa and from Africa to the rest of the world that seemed to imply that genetic diversity among humans is greater outside the African continent when I've always understood the opposite to be the case, but it is possible I misread that part. Since the novel isn't pure fantasy, I felt a little more effort was needed in working out exactly how magic, science and technology would work together in this future. However it was also fun to read a world in which there is magic without that fact appearing to entirely negate the existence of and possibility for science and technology.

I was also a little disappointed that all the representatives at the peace conference that we got any significant details on were leaders by hereditary-right or straight-up warlords (although it was implied that several of the others fell more into the "respected elder" category). In fact the novel has an odd anti-democratic undertone. The heroine's father, one of the villains of the piece, is the only democratically appointed leader that we get to meet. I suspect this is an artefact of the heroic fantasy genre which tends to be fond of its kings but again, it seemed a little awkward among the distinctively SF feel to this piece of fantasy writing.

Still I thought this a much better novel than Zahrah, the Windseeker. It stands alone just fine resisting, in fact, any temptation to reference the events of the earlier novel and, if someone were interested in checking out Okarofor-Mbachu's work I would probably recommend starting with this one.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/12262.html.