Back in 2010, I truly enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death. It was an emotionally charged tale set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, featuring Onyesonwu, a child of rape who is an outcast in her community. In my review, I mentioned that the novel was a tale that can pull on the heartstrings when you least expect it. If there was a speculative fiction title about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity and atrocities, Who Fears Death had to be it. Some readers were criticizing Okorafor for writing a feminist work daring to explore subject matters best left undisturbed, such as the practice of clitorectomy, genocide, racism between various tribes, rape, sexuality, and violence. Yet I found that a bit pathetic, as I felt that the author should be commended for having produced a tale that packs such a powerful emotional punch.
So when I found out that Okorafor had written a prequel to Who Fears Death, I knew I had to read it! And when I received a copy of the trade paperback edition, it immediately went to the top of the pile. And though the book is marketed as a prequel, The Book of Phoenix is pretty much a stand-alone work. Indeed, the connection between the two novels is only made at the very end of The Book of Phoenix. Hence, it can be read and appreciated without having read the other. Still, I urge people to read both, as both are powerful works of fiction.
Here's the blurb:
A fiery spirit dances from the pages of the Great Book. She brings the aroma of scorched sand and ozone. She has a story to tell… The Book of Phoenix is a unique work of magical futurism. A prequel to the highly acclaimed, World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Who Fears Death, it features the rise of another of Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful, memorable, superhuman women. Phoenix was grown and raised among other genetic experiments in New York’s Tower 7. She is an “accelerated woman”—only two years old but with the body and mind of an adult, Phoenix’s abilities far exceed those of a normal human. Still innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she is content living in her room speed reading e-books, running on her treadmill, and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human of Tower 7. Then one evening, Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated by his death and Tower 7’s refusal to answer her questions, Phoenix finally begins to realize that her home is really her prison, and she becomes desperate to escape. But Phoenix’s escape, and her destruction of Tower 7, is just the beginning of her story. Before her story ends, Phoenix will travel from the United States to Africa and back, changing the entire course of humanity’s future.
Though it contained scifi elements, Who Fears Death was more of a magical realism novel. On the other hand, this prequel is an authentic science fiction work. The tale begins in New York City, where Tower 7 is located. But Phoenix's quest will take her to Ghana, Nigeria, St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, and other locales across the USA. African traditions and folklore are at the heart of this story, but Okorafor also explores themes such as slavery, Western oppression and colonialism in Africa. The Book of Phoenix is another novel filled with uncomfortable truths that will leave no one indifferent.
Onyesonwu was brazen, confused, and alienated, which means that it wasn't always easy to follow the first-person narrative of such a bitter, mad, and ambivalent teen girl. Although no less complex and three-dimensional, Phoenix is a much easier protagonist to root for. As an accelerated woman, in many respects she is but a child in an adult's body. But that child is forced to grow up fast and face truths that will change her life. Even better, the supporting cast truly makes a difference and adds depth to this tale. Understandably, the first-person narrative means that Phoenix takes center stage. But it's her interaction with memorable characters like Saeed, Kofi, Mmuo, and Seven that makes this such an interesting read.
Unlike its predecessor, the pace throughout The Book of Phoenix is never an issue. Phoenix's plight captures your imagination from the very beginning and won't let go, making this book a veritable page-turner. Sadly, it's another relatively short work, which means that you reach the end all too quickly. Having said that, I felt that The Book of Phoenix was as long as it needed to be. Since this story was first created as a novelette and then grew into a novella, I was afraid that the novel-length version might have been bloated with filler material. And yet, nothing can be further from the truth. Though short, this is a work that makes quite an impression and stays with you long after you've reached the last page.
I liked how Nnedi Okorafor demonstrated how mythology and mythmaking will ultimately bridge the stories that are The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death. This is pretty much an added bonus for those who have read the latter, as you realize that Sunuteel is the author of the sacred texts which will come to be known The Great Book.
Do yourself a favor an give Nnedi Okorafor a shot. You won't be disappointed!