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The Shadow Speaker

August 14, 2017

The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, is set in a 2070 version of Nigeria, after the Great Change” when “Peace Bombs” unleashed magic from other worlds on Earth. Among other effects, this created “metahumans” like Ejii Ugabe, who is a “shadow speaker,” one who can communicate in mysterious ways with people, animals, and plants.

I read this novel because of Jenny’s recommendation—she found it inventive, which it is, but I found the way the story is told to be clumsy and dependent on stereotypes, culminating in an ending that felt like a slap in the face.

The Shadow Speaker, Ejii, is fourteen, and her story begins with a long and detailed description of her life in a Nigerian village with her mother, her half-siblings, and her friends, fellow shadow speakers Sammy and Arif. After the first 85 pages, however, Ejii leaves the village and meets a new metahuman friend named Dikeogu. Their adventures are exciting, so we soon forget about the people in the village and enjoy seeing Ejii calm a sentient sandstorm and Dikeogu intrigue a powerful being who calls himself the “Desert Magician.”

They are on their way to a meeting called “The Golden Dawn” which is “a gathering of wise people from all five of the worlds.” Ejii compares it to the United Nations, so young readers will know what kind of organization it is. Ejii and Dikeogu are supposed to be attending as observers, but Ejii knows that she is there to prevent a war, because the “shadows” have told her so.

In the process of learning to use her powers, Ejii dies and brings herself back to life. (This should have been my first warning against continuing to read this novel, but I didn’t heed it.) When her traveling companion tells her “you died, Ejii….You’ve been gone for a half hour” she says
“I know. She knew so much now. She had passed the shadow speaker’s greatest test, she now understood. Did all shadow speakers have to die when they embarked on their travels?”
This question is never answered.

Ejii and Dikeogu cross over from Earth into Ginen, another world where everything is made of living plants. The descriptions of the plants and their uses are wonderful, although there is one unnecessary detour, a long, overnight journey to see a field of plants that start to “glow a hot-red orange” every twenty-five years and the “singing wasps” that hatch out of them and then return as food for the bushes.

We are told that the history of conflict between Earth and Ginen dates back to the intrusion of Earth trucks into Ginen: “the vehicles spewed smoke and fumes, poison to this land.” Again, in order to make sure that a young reader will know how to react, we’re told that “Ejii was reminded of something she’d read about the Native Americans in the United States. How they had no tolerance for alcohol, so when the Europeans brought it to them, it wreaked terrible havoc on their bodies.”

At the end, Ejii’s purpose in coming to Ginen is revealed when she saves the life of an evil chief, a person who “was the kind of fat that only came from eating more than a camel ate in a day. Ejii’s mother would have been disgusted. His body broadcasted excess and greed.” Even though Ejii “reads” him without his permission, finding out the reason why he ate so much and got fat, she has no sympathy for him: “though Ette’s childhood was sad and he was full of resentment and insecurity, she still despised him. He was the type of man who had to bring others down to lift himself up, and he was a lot to lift.”

So although it was interesting to see a version of the future from a Nigerian point of view with some inventive world-building details, the clumsy handling of comparisons to how things work on the Earth we know and the stereotyping of the villain at the end turned me off. And to top it all off, there’s the casual necromancy which is unnecessary and unexplained, just another awkwardness in the story-telling.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2017 11:06 am

    I read Lagoon by Okorafor, but it was too weird for me to enjoy. I couldn’t be as articulate about my criticisms as you are, but it seemed either poorly constructed or there was something I was not getting. Some good individual scenes and descriptions, but it didn’t hang together for me.

    • August 14, 2017 11:11 am

      It seems like this author has potential but still needs to pull it all together in a future novel (and perhaps she can choose to characterize badness in more of its complications, rather than resorting to shorthand).

  2. Jenny permalink
    August 30, 2017 12:33 am

    I’m sorry you didn’t like this more! I liked it fair-to-middling. I didn’t mind as much about the fat chief as you did, not because I don’t object to fat=bad (I do) but because he wasn’t the only bad person in the novel and the other villain wasn’t fat. I do think she characterizes badness more than one way.

    I think this might be her first novel. With the inventiveness, I’d be willing to see if she gets better.

    • August 30, 2017 8:24 am

      I agree about the inventiveness. I’m trying to figure out who the other villain is. Ejii’s father is a bit of a villain, but vanquished early. The woman who vanquished her father turns out to be more complicated than she seems, but I wouldn’t call her a villain.

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