Onyesonwu is the outcast child of a mother who cannot speak above a whisper. Her skin and hair clearly mark her as Ewu, a child of both Nuru and Okeke, a combination despised by Nuru and Okeke alike. Her gender makes the only sorcerer in the village unwilling to teach her. And her shapeshifting and nigh-uncontrollable magic make her neighbors fear and hate her. After her father dies and her magical powers manifest themselves at his funeral, she flees into the desert to avoid mob violence and to seek her nemesis: the man who raped her mother, sired her, and has been trying to kill her ever since. She is accompanied on her quest by four friends, her true love, and a herd of free-spirited camels.
This is an ambitious but frustrating work. Ambitious because it tackles head-on issues of rape, child abuse, child soldiers, female genital cutting, adolescent sexuality, genocide...Okorafor never flinches. But frustrating because the main character is pretty unlikable, the plot is your classic bildungsroman, and the pacing is terrible. Onye has a wide, bewildering array of magic powers that she seems to forget about just when the plot requires her to. After three hundred pages of exhaustively described meals and screamed dialog, she solves genocide in the last, like, two pages? And then there are something like three epilogues? It's not great.
Spoilers from here on out: Onyesonwu is not a particularly moral person. She forces entire towns (children included) to relive her mother's rape. She strikes another town (again, children included) blind. She explodes an entire, occupied building. She kills every fertile man, and forces every fertile woman to be pregnant (with what, I'm not sure). When her best friends come to her for help, she turns into a vulture and flies away, rages at them, or dismisses them. Once in a while, she'll actually have a conversation with one of her supposed bffs, but mostly she's either screaming at them or deriding them in her head. I'm not sure how much we're supposed to agree with Onyesonwu. She does terrible, awful things to unnamed villagers, but then lauds herself for not killing her bio-father (the architect of all the attempted genocide of the Okeke). And all the elderly sorcerers are like, "wow, well done, you're so awesome." What?
And I have no clue what actually happens at the end. Onye rewrites the Great Book, which will apparently stop Nuru/Okeke violence somehow, then gets captured and executed (as was prophesied). The person she was narrating this to even digs up her corpse and re-buries her in the desert. But then two epilogues later it turns out she turned into a Kponyungo, killed her guards, was never executed, and in fact flew away to the Great Greeny Jungle? And then the epilogue says all the Nuru waiting to execute Onye are still waiting for her so they can execute her? Even though they already did? Argh, it makes my head hurt. To me, it doesn't seem clever, it seems sloppy. If she never died, then where did her corpse come from?
Plus, I don't get how her re-write of the Great Book changed anything. So she killed all the fertile men, made all the fertile pregnant, and gave all women magical powers. Great. What on earth is that supposed to do? How would that possibly stop the war between Nuru and Okeke? The book spends so much time talking about who each of her friends is sleeping with that the end of genocidal hatred comes in about three sentences. It's just jammed into the end, as though the author suddenly realized she needed to wrap it up.
I'm disappointed, because I expected to really like this book. As it is, it's so flawed (in my eyes) that I'm giving it 3 stars only out of respect for the breadth and depth of issues and world-building Okorafor attempts here, and not for any engaging writing or story.