I’ve always loved fantasy and liked sci-fi. Fantasy has a special place in my heart, because good swords-and-sorcery fiction is just made of win. There’s a lot to love in the genre, especially when it’s done well (a la Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch).
All my life I’ve been reading these books, and not once have I read an author who looks like me. Almost every book of the genre that I’ve read was by an American author with your typical nerd history (played D&D, huge Star Wars/Star Trek fan), and I think they’re to blame for my geek leanings. I mean, what business has a Ghanaba like me have wishing we had LARP meets in Ghana?
Not once have I read a fantasy or sci-fi book by a black author. I’m sure there are a couple out there, I just never read one. Then I stumbled upon Nnedi Okorafor, and her novella Binti. I saw a picture of the cover art on my Twitter feed, and was immediately intrigued. A black protagonist? A Nigerian name on a sci-fi book? A female Nigerian sci-fi writer? And she’s getting good press? I immediately had to read this book, and so I did. Let me tell you, Binti is a great book. It’s sci-fi, which as I said is a genre I like, but don’t read much of, and so I came to this book with no expectations. I was only hoping for an engaging read and some interesting characters.
Binti is a Nebula Award winning novella that follows the titular character on her journey across space to Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. She is the first of the Himba people to ever be offered a place at Oomza, but her decision to accept the offer upturns her life and is strongly opposed by her family. Binti is willing to acquire knowledge no matter the cost, and determines to make the journey regardless. She had no idea that what was supposed to be a routine flight would take a disastrous turn, and her life would be changed forever.
I’m trying to not spoil much, because I’d rather you read it as I did, with no idea what to expect, and form your own opinions about it. I really, really wanted to love this book totally and completely, with no reservations, and be completely blown away by it, but I wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the writing, the attention to detail, and the effort it takes to craft a great story and a convincing world in under 100 pages, so I’m not being hypercritical. It’s just some things felt a little forced for me, some things did not play out the way they should have (I’m talking about consequences for atrocious actions), and I had a sense there was far more that Nnedi could have done with this. The resolution felt a little too bow-tied and perfect, but the sections in which Binti talks about the history of her people, their suffering and the richness of their culture are amazing. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s not half bad either. I really recommend you pick it up if you can. The sections about the Himba people alone are worth it.
I like this book for another reason. Nnedi Okorafor is an inspiration to me, being Nigerian and yet writing sci-fi. I’ve always had trouble with the fact that African writers seemed to only write a certain kind of book, that was always set in a certain kind of place, and dealt with a certain kind of theme. I don’t like the fact that the phrase “African writer” evokes images of savannas for cover art and themes of colonial oppression and race and hardship. Yes, much of African history is similar in certain regards and many people in many places across the continent have had similar experiences, but I do not believe there is one “African narrative.” We are many things. We are not an undifferentiated mass of shared experience and choices. We should be allowed to tell our stories how we want to, and I believe Nnedi Okorafor did exactly that, in a fresh approach that resonated with me immensely. I really liked this book. My only gripe was with some of the storytelling choices she made. That said, this is a great book that explores themes of importance to us, and the fact that it’s done in a fresh, unconventional format makes this novella a must read.
I give Binti 4/5 stars.
|Publisher||Tom Doherty Associates, 2015|
Binti is available in audio format on audible.com, and I recommend you get the audiobook if you can. I enjoyed it a ton.