Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s The Shadow Speaker
Hyperion 2007

Yes, it was only two weeks ago that I was G is for Gushing about Hiromi Goto’s Half World. And part of me is inclined to apologize because I’m about to Gush again, but the bigger part of me remains unapologetic: I just can’t be sorry to have been so lucky as to have discovered two such terrific reads in such a short period of reading time.

If anything that I said about Half World appealed to you (The Shadow Speaker, too, is filled with Girl Power, Out-of-the-Ordinary, Tenderness, and Once-Upon-a-Time-ness), you might as well skip reading what’s below and, instead, spend the time contacting your favourite bookstore and requesting they set aside a copy of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel for you.

One of my favourite things to learn about a writer — especially when they’re new to me — is the names of writers whose works they’ve enjoyed themselves. sometimes I use that information as a clue — whether I’d enjoy an author’s work myself if I’ve also enjoyed the works of writers they consider influential — but in this case I discovered Nnedi Okorafor’s list after I devoured The Shadow Speaker, so it was more of a serious nodding session because I understand five of the connections she’s drawn there, so now I feel compelled to seek out the one storyteller on the list whose work I haven’t yet sampled.

Here is a dash from her website for flavour: “Because she grew up wanting to be an entomologist and even after becoming a writer maintained that love of insects and nature, her work is always filled with startlingly vivid flora and fauna. And because Octavia Butler, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, Tove Jansson, Hayao Miyazaki, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are her greatest influences, her work tends to be…on the creative side.”

The majority of The Shadow Speaker is set in West Africa in 2070 which would have set this book apart for me on its own; I think I’ve only read one other magical novel with a young black heroine (Tan-Tan, in Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, although a novel written for adults with includes her coming-of-age) so Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s novel is refreshing to say the least.

But, alright, I can’t leave it at that because I think that’s disgraceful, although it’s not my disgrace alone. I read a tonne of fantasy novels as a girl, but they were all filled with little white girls and boys, and goblins and wizards, fairies and witches, selkies and sylphs (who were all white too, apparently); how is it that, reading an average of 100 books a year, I can count — on one hand — the number of magical novels with young black heroines that I have read. I’d like to think that it’s just my poor reader’s memory, but it’s more likely poor reading selection. And maybe that’s not entirely my fault but recognizing now how hard it is to find such works, I’ll have to take responsibility for looking harder at least.

And it’ll be a pleasure to seek out Nnedi Okorafor’s next work, Who Fears Death, which is a novel written for adults, and her previously published works written with young people in mind (details on her site).

The Shadow Speaker takes place in the future, after The Great Change which is described as follows:

“That fateful day, when Ejii’s mother was just a little girl, a vast green-tinted wave flew over the earth. People said it smelled like thousands of types of flowers and that the air made one’s skin feel tight. There were earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes. Things collapsed, died, moved, were born, were erected, expanded. Things changed. But not in the way that Dieuri expected. No science or magic is so easily controlled by a mere human being. No longer did many rules of the earth apply.”

Click the beautiful image for Challenge Site

As you might guess, transformation and growth are central to this novel and, I suspect, to this novelist’s worldview. It’s also one of the reasons that, I think, the book would inherently appeal to girls coming-of-age. As Jaa says to Ejii: “People deserve to be allowed to be who they are, nurture their talents, dig up and eat happiness, fail at things they try.”

But, perhaps, in novels of the fantastic, these qualities are not enough to recommend a particular title. What really, really made this book stand out for me was that it’s 336 pages long, but even with only 100 pages left to read, she was still surprising me, still inventing, still expanding, still drawing me in.

I don’t want to steal even a whisper from the magic of her storytelling, so I’m choosing a snippet that’s relatively minor to give an idea of the book’s creative energy to give a hint of this:

“I was standing at the elevator. I was going to go. But then a ghost appeared and refused to let the elevator doors open for me. She looked like a palm tree pushing through the floor. I guess she was the ghost of a tree that used to grow there before the hotel existed. She said ‘A friend is like a source of water during a long voyage. Without water, you’ll wither away.’ Then she shook her leaves and disappeared. Even the damn trees are nosy.”

Okay, okay, for those who have seen a lot of Hayao Miyazaki films, talking tree spirits might not seem that innovative, but I assure you that while I found the image of prohibitive palm spirit amusing, there are many, more vivid, memorable innovations in The Shadow Speaker.

I read this one for the Once Upon a Time Reading Challenge. If I’d had more time to read for this challenge, I would definitely have included a re-read of Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (it’s just wonder+ful) although I will be chatting about Nalo Hopkinson’s latest novel, The New Moon’s Arms in a few days (with the Women Unbound Reading Challenge in mind).