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Book Review: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death) - Nnedi Okorafor

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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. 

 

Thanks to Hachette Australia for a review copy of this book.

 

So, I rarely review books that I’m not particularly optimistic about, mainly because I try very hard to keep this a positive space, and about books that I genuinely think deserve promoting. However, I actually really wanted to try and explain why I found The Book Of Phoenix problematic. It’s been niggling at my mind for days; the need to give a full explanation for my lower end rating. It comes down to the fact that I was incredibly in love with parts of the book, and yet really disappointed with others;  I find I am unable to let this lie without an explanation. I usually find books with this sort of dichotomy really hard to level out in my mind, and so my opinion is always a bit disorderly. But, not with this book. I can pretty much tell you exactly what I loved, and what I didn’t, because it is actually glaringly obvious this time.

 

So, break it down really simply. What I worshiped, is Nnedi Okorafor’s ability to create characters, and explore their back story. There are explorations of culture, of gender, of diversity, and of politics. The clash that can occur between cultures that don’t fully understand each other, or want to: the prejudice, racism, and ignorance that can exist between co-exiting races and cultures.  All of these perfect details, sewn within each characters background.

 

I absolutely adored the sections of this book when the various characters sat down with Phoenix, and they told her about how they got to the place they are at now, almost like a parent telling a child a story. It is akin to oral storytelling, rather than written words on a page; that’s how beautifully composed those sections are. I love the explanations of places, cultures, and characters, that I would never have the opportunity to explore for myself, and therefore never have first-hand experience of. Points of view that I will never fully comprehend, even though I try to. They are so well done, so completely engrossing, that it kept me reading the book, when frankly it might have ended up in the DNF pile.

 

The thing that didn’t impress me so much, was the over arcing plot. Around a third of the way through, the intensity, and sincerity of the narrative started to fall flat. It became tired. I’ve read variations of the same narrative, so many times before, that I could predict what the ending would be. And, I’ll be honest, it annoyed me that Okorafor put so much effort into creating these extremely beautifully rendered characters, with such rich backgrounds and unique stories, but the plot line fell into a generic pattern. In a way, I think it might have been done on purpose, to show that a strong, black African female, could play the role of the hero (or villain), as well as any other cookie-cutter heroine within this type of storyline. Unfortunately, I wanted more for Phoenix, I wanted to see her shine brighter than those common cookie-cutter heroines. She didn’t, because the plotline flattened her out.

 

I am not an author, I’m certainly not the author. So I’ll only say what I wish had happened with this book, rather than saying what should have happened with this book. And, ask that you take it with a grain of salt. I personally would have loved to have seen this, as a book of short stories based on each character individually, in that first person, oral tradition tone that Nnedi Okorafor used so well. The stories of not only how these characters ended up in this situation, but their background, their cultures, their experiences; everything that Okorafor was able to bring out so exceptionally during those times exposition in The Book Of Phoenix. It didn’t need that bland, predictable, plot line to showcase Okorafor’s  ability to bring out the most poignant parts of a characters story, and make them gleam. I would have devoured every single word of that…

 

Full disclosure, I haven’t read Who Fears Death, the book that this is a prequel to, so maybe in some way I have missed the importance of the plotline, I don’t know. However, it certainly didn’t make this book stand out as a book that could be read as a standalone, or something you would want to read before Who Fears Death.

 

(and the very end of the book made absolutely no sense… I’m guessing that is where the crossover between the two books occurs? Maybe a character that is in Who Fears Death)

 

I feel relieved now that I’ve written that down!

 

 

Has anyone else read The Book of Pheonix? What did you think?