I first picked up The Shadow Speaker because I have recently become an avid fan of Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, recent Hugo award winner for her novella, Binti. Not only was I intrigued by the fact that her stories of magical realism set in Africa (whether partially or wholly) but I was also excited by her featuring girls coming of age and into their own power. The Shadow Speaker does not disappoint. This full-length novel centers on Ejii, a 14-year-old Muslim Nigerian girl living in 2070. She also happens to be able to speak to shadows, for which she receives lessons in fluency and ability. It’s a story of her journey from a girl uncertain of her abilities and place in the world to standing up for what’s right.
I wish I knew before I started reading got most of the way through it that this is a sequel to Zahara The Windseeker. Likely, that story has certain things in it that could shed some light on this book. However, it worked well enough on its own that reading the first book will only add to it. Nothing in this book was really confusing without having read the first book.
Being what this story is, a coming-of-age story, much of the character development does occur for the main protagonist. It’s a story through her lens and her journey to tell. And it’s done really well. Her development doesn’t have any surprises that come too soon, she doesn’t grow in ways that are unnatural to her or too early for her, even as there are some missteps and her uncertainty of her role in life. At one point, she must literally journey on her own from her home to another city in order to become an apprentice.
Along the way, she meets Dikeougu, a boy about her age. After Ejii, he is the one to go through the most change. What’s believable about them is that they don’t change at the same rate or for the same reason – they are their own people with separate desires and needs and changes that must happen. The other characters in the story are there to either help Ejii (or Dikeougu), like her mom, her instructor, her friends, even her abusive half-brother, or they serve to be the counterpoint to Ejii. While we understand each of the character’s motives and they react predictably, they don’t change or grow in the way that Ejii and Dikeougu do. In a way, it makes the changes they go through more acute.
The story in of itself is very cool. It’s at once familiar and new. The familiarity is in the journey Ejii undertakes, the new is in the combination of interesting characters, changes in the world that make it different from ours, and an introduction to worlds vastly different from our own, but with people not so different from us. The crux of the story is very familiar – violence versus peace, environmentalism, anger and fear versus love, and self-acceptance all play a role in the plot. It’s what each character does in response to the events as they unfold that make it interesting and vivid.
Okorafor-Mbachu is skilled at making this relatable, which is important especially for teens who reading this. She is able to take these magical elements, explain and present them in such a way that it is utterly normal even if daunting in certain instances, and make it easy for the reader to access the story. The one major hang-up I have about this particular novel is that Ejii carries something similar to a tablet but we only see two pages as though she has written something on it as a journal entry. It pulled me right out of the story since it happened only the one time and seemed out of place. Also, as a personal preference, I would have loved more information on the races she encountered in one of the other worlds.
for each one, you can have more than one thing. (keep it together tho… all the good about character, then all the bad) But alternating good and bad, and ending with the best, helps soften the blow while still telling the negative parts you need to tell to be honest