The blurb, from Goodreads:
The year is 2070, and civilization has been completely transformed following a nuclear fallout in the early twenty-first century. Magic, mysticism, and mind-blowing technology now rule the world.
In West Africa, fourteen-year-old Ejii struggles to master her own magical powers. Embarking on a journey across the Sahara to find her father’s murderer, Ejii discovers that her people are in danger of annihilation, and that she may be their last hope for survival
Let me start off the review by saying that I loved this novel. I think everyone should read it. It’s a fun, imaginative story with a lead character, Ejii, who I found easy to sympathise and identify with.
Ejii lives in an Earth where magic is real, where technology is flourishing, and humans are still struggling with how to deal with people who are different. The nuclear fallout referenced in the book’s blurb wasn’t simply radiation, but the result radicals deliberately tampering with bombs in order to spread peace throughout the world. The law of unintended consequences demands that this not go as planned, and so the boundaries between our world and other, more magical worlds, were weakened, creating great earthquakes and influxes of magic into the every day lives of people. The exact explanation of how this Peace Bomb worked stretched my suspension of disbelief, but that is my only complaint about the novel. Eventually I decided to just go with it, but my gut reaction to this background information took me right out of the narrative.
Ejii holds a precarious position in the village. Her mother is a council wise woman, her father was a tyrannical–much feared and loved–leader of their village when she was a small child, and she is a girl touched by magic–which alternately makes her an object of suspicion and respect. At fourteen, Ejii is struggling to reconcile who she is as defined by her parents and their disparate beliefs, being a child of magic, and who she wants to become.
Her story takes place primarily in West Africa, in and around the Sahara. As such, the world building that Okorafor does has a different flavor than the science fiction and fantasy I have been accustomed to. Societal norms, mannerisms, and accepted behavior and relationships are a mixture of this magical post- Peace Bomb world and current African culture. I recognize bits and pieces from other African fiction and non-fiction I’ve read, but I don’t know enough to know where current culture blends with Okorafor’s future world. Ejii, living in a cultural crossroads, speaks a handful of languages–English, Arabic, Igbo, and Hausa come to mind–and uses them as appropriate, depending on her situation. She moves from wearing a full burka to just the dress underneath depending on her comfort level and situation, too, giving us a glimpse not only of Ejii’s struggle with her beliefs but, because this seems acceptable to most of the people she is around, a glimpse of the wide range of “acceptable” dress and behavior in the area.
Ejii is a shadow speaker, a person touched by magic and born with the ability to hear what the shadows–which never lie–whisper (and eventually, we learn, to tap into the thoughts of and communicate with many sentient beings). She learns from the shadows that she must accompany her Queen, Jaa, to a council of representatives from the many worlds that are beginning to merge, and that her presence there may be the difference between all out war and a tentative peace. With this information and a healthy dose of trepidation, Ejii sets off into the wild and dangerous Sahara.
Her reactions to the challenges she faces and her personal growth feel organic and natural even as she’s facing trickster guides and sentient wind storms that like nothing more than to whip the flesh off of a person’s bones. More than anything else–the setting, the magic, the underlying politics and culture–it is Ejii’s growth that pushes the novel along, and it this character development that had me falling in love with The Shadow Speaker.