Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

I am ashamed to say that I don’t remember much about the first Nnedi Okorafor book I read five years ago, Who Fears Death, beyond that I really liked it at the time and that it was a far-future science fantasy novel set in Sudan. After reading The Book of Phoenix, a prequel, I will be circling around to reread it at some point later this year or early next, I hope. I do remember the original well enough to say that one thing I love about this, is that Okorafor does not pretend that this is not the prequel to a dystopian, or at least a post-global catastrophe, story. She plays absolutely fairly in setting up the next book.

The Book of Phoenix, aside from being cold-blooded (in the best way) in not flinching from what the previous book implied, is an excellent, angry  superhero-style mix of science fiction and fantasy (magical futurism, says the promotional material, and that’s not a bad description) story in its own right. The framing story, which connects the two books, is set somewhere in far future Africa. There is some recognizable technology (handheld devices, etc.), but clearly the global infrastructure is not what it is now, and the human population is clearly made up of survivors of some catastrophe. A man takes a wilderness walk at the behest of his wife and stumbles onto a trove of old out of date computers. As he investigates an audio file is transferred to his mobile and he hears the voice of Phoenix begin to tell her story.

It starts in a research tower in NYC, also far in the future, but closer to us than the frame story. The world is already well past some climate catastrophe; New York is a tropical zone. Phoenix appears to be in her 40s, though in reality she is 3. She is the product of an extensive genetic engineering program, and, according to the company that keeps her imprisoned in Tower 7. Her intelligence is accelerated as well; she’s read tens of thousands of books on various topics in her three years there. There are many other people, mostly of African descent, or at least using African DNA, like her, who have various paranormal abilities. Phoenix herself runs hot, physically. Her temperature runs extremely high. I don’t need to spoil at least part of her powers for anyone who has read greek mythology and the title of the book. Inevitability, she escapes the tower. The story takes her to Africa and back to America for vengeance.

This is a very angry novel and a very good one. It deals with issues of race, unfettered capitalism, and cultural/colonial theft. These themes are baked into the story and are absolutely clear without didacticism. It is well written and plotted. I look forward to rereading the older book Who Fears Death to see how the framing story matches them up. I would love to see a movie or read a graphic novel based on Book of Phoenix. It’s great as is, but would also adapt well in the right hands.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread Unread 2020 40/75

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