Akata Witch is a young adult standalone novel by the award-winning Nnedi Okorafor. Our protagonist is twelve-year-old Sunny, who grew up in America but lives in Nigeria. Though she has West African features, Sunny is also albino, so she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. But then Sunny meets Chichi and Orlu, and Sunny learns that there’s a whole magical community known as the Leopard People hidden in her town. Sunny – a “free agent,” a person born with magical power despite no magical parents – is invited to join this community. Soon Sunny is making friends and taking classes in magic, and things start looking up – until a magical serial killer known only as Black Hat begins murdering children in nearby towns. Then it’s up to Sunny and her friends to figure out a way to stop him.
A new world that feels familiar and intimate
Fantasy is infamous for being primarily inspired by Western European cultures and primarily populated by white people, which is a real shame since fantasy lovers live all over the world and come in all skin tones. Akata Witch is a phenomenal departure from tired old tradition, and Okorafor works some serious authorial magic in making an unconventional fantasy location – Nigeria – feel as familiar and homey as any whitewashed, vaguely European setting.
Part of this familiarity comes from Okorafor’s excellent choice to include excerpts from an imaginary book called Fast Facts for Free Agents at the beginning of each chapter. Not only has this imaginary book got some serious attitude, but it allows the reader to learn right alongside Sunny about the Leopard People and their headquarters, Leopard Knocks, without resorting to info dumps.
Comparing Akata Witch to the Harry Potter books is inevitable; there’s the same misfit protagonist, hidden magical community, magic school, and theme of growing up. I think this is a cheap comparison, though; Akata Witch has an entirely different tone and is, in some ways, a more mature book when it comes to romance, parents, and conflict between friends. However, I will say that, like in J. K. Rowling’s novels, the world in Akata Witch is utterly immersive and imaginative. You’ll want to live right there in Leopard Knocks with Sunny by the time you’ve finished this novel.
The characters’ friendships make this book really special
The world-building in Akata Witch already makes this book special, but what really sends it over the top are the real, believable, and wonderful relationships between Sunny and the three other magical students: Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha. Within pages of first being introduced to the characters, I felt like they were lifelong, real world friends of mine. They’ve each got distinct personalities and are as complicated as real people; they never feel like caricatures (which, to return to the Harry Potter comparison, is an improvement over some Hogwarts residents!).
The growing friendships – and, perhaps, romances – between this magical quartet make Akata Witch more than just a fantasy adventure. It’s also about growing up, learning how to trust other people, and finding your place in your community. This is young-adult fiction at its finest.
The Black Hat plot is slow
Leopard People face many magical dangers, but for Sunny and her friends, their most fearsome enemy is Black Hat: the magical serial killer who once trained, like them, at Leopard Knocks. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha must band together to form an Oha Coven: a magical combination of two girls and two boys, along with a few other special elements, in order to defeat evil.
Unfortunately, the final battle against Black Hat feels too easy and anti-climactic. Black Hat is so mysterious for most of the novel that he feels underdeveloped. Fortunately, there are many more excellent secondary story lines, and of course the real story in Akata Witch is Sunny finding her place in her family and in Leopard Knocks. It’s easy to overlook Black Hat’s failure to thrill.
Why should you read this book?
Akata Witch is everything you could ask for in a young-adult novel: sensitive, immersive, exciting, and unique. Sunny is a strong and captivating female protagonist, and her friends are equally powerful secondary characters. Problems with the storyline about Black Hat are overshadowed by Okorafor’s wonderfully rhythmic style, the many secondary plots, and the all-around fabulous world-building. Best of all, Akata Witch ends with the potential for a series. I really, really hope Okorafor revisits Sunny and Leopard Knocks soon!