It’s 2070, and we’re in next-generation West Africa. Fourteen-year old Ejii Ugabe has supernatural “shadow speaking” talents that she hasn’t fully grown into, not least because her power-hungry estranged father didn’t believe girls should be educated. Her world has already been through an enormous Change, resulting in an unpredictable mix of magical and physical laws, and it’s about to undergo another one.
Ejii’s “shadow” advisors compel her to travel to a peace conference, the Golden Dawn Meeting, between representatives of merging realities. If the talks don’t go well, there are warmongering worlds that would like to destroy us, and as if those stakes aren’t high enough, the journey itself could kill her.
She travels in the entourage of Sarauniya Jaa, the Red Queen of Niger, a great leader and swordswoman with two husbands (one of whom used to be a sandstorm). I loved Jaa. Red flowers drop from the air whenever she speaks. Also, she chopped Ejii’s father’s head off with a sword. As her protégé, Ejii is torn between reluctant admiration and concerns that Jaa, who’s bringing the sword, may not be the best person to represent Earth at a peace conference. (Jaa: We come in peace! Whack.)
From sentient desert sandstorms to thriving garden cities with literal house-plants, houses that are plants, the strength of this novel is its magical-realist African setting. Okorafor loads her writing with sensory detail and imaginative doodads like electric lizards, digital ghosts, and, my personal favorite, flocks of carnivorous hummingbirds.
Ejii is an interesting young woman, trying to balance her innate calling to be a peacemaker with the occasional need to knock somebody’s teeth out. (I see The Shadow Speaker is on ALA’s 2009 Amelia Bloomer List, which recommends feminist books for children and teens.) The action is very episodic, which may be why I felt the story skewed a little younger than the occasional strong language would suggest. The secondary characters were well-drawn, and we’re likely to hear more about them in the sequel that is in the works.
Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Speaker