Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Saturday Star Wars: Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston (Book Review) and Talking About Star Wars on Under A Pile of Books!

Hello everyone, and welcome to a new weekly column I’ll be writing for the foreseeable future, based on one of my favourite fictional universes of all time, STAR WARS! (In case the title was somehow misleading.)

As this is the first post in the series, I’ve a double treat for you all!

Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston – The Book Review

We readers and listeners sometimes enjoy books that are not necessarily great works of fiction. Ahsoka, for example, has no shortage of small issues, the greatest of all which is its rushed pacing – and yet, I cannot find it within myself to feel more than trifling annoyance at author E. K. Johnston. Not when I had such a wonderful eight hours listening to voice actress Ashley Eckstein bring the character to life once more.

Ahsoka is a brilliant character, one of the finest additions to the Star Wars universe. Her arc in the Clone Wars animated series never ceased to capture the imagination and her fate post-Order-66 was the subject of great interest before Anakin Skywalker’s former apprentice resurfaced in the Rebels series a few years ago.

With Ahsoka, E. K. Johnston fills in the blanks and shows everyone’s favourite togruta at one of her lowest moments. Ahsoka Tano has spent the first years of the Empire hidden away, uncertain about how to make a difference in a galaxy controlled by fear and plummeting ever further in the depths of oppression. Changing circumstances force her to relocate from her hiding place on planet Thabeska to a small Outer Rim moon by the name of Raada, a settlement of only a few hundred farmers. In this settlement, Ahsoka – or Ashla, as she goes by now – befriends some of the locals, embracing the uncomplicated life of a mechanic.

It doesn’t last long, as an Imperial contingent arrives with the sole purpose of exploiting the arid lands of Raada in order to grow a crop of nutritional supplement, which has the side effect of leeching the nutritional elements inherent in the Raadan soil. The Empire forces the farmers to grow this poisonous crop, to which Ahsoka does not take kindly to; the farmers are even less happy about working at the end of a blaster, and resistance is quickly in the works.

I’m continually impressed with how dark stories involving Ahsoka tend to get, and this is no different – there’s elements of torture here, of oppression, forced labour and mass murder. Just like the Clone Wars! Y’know…for kids!*

Ahsoka Tano, the confident wisp of a girl we know, is much changed at the beginning of this novel, the full extent of the Jedi Purge weighing down on her beyond anything she’s faced previously.  It’s no wonder that she’d be hesitant to find a cause to fight for, then; however, Ahsoka goes through a transformation as she witnesses the brutality of the Empire first-hand. Through luck, a few new friendships and even an old ally or two, however, we really see her find her footing in this cruel new galaxy; Ahsoka is above all, a story about hope regained.

Ahsoka side by side with her voice actress, Ashley Eckstein

Ashley Eckstein is a brilliant narrator; she’s truly made Ahsoka her own, to the point where thinking of anyone else taking over for her would force me and the rest of the Star Wars fanbase to rebel. She elevates an enjoyable novel to something I couldn’t stop listening to, an audiobook I want to return to despite having finished it a mere two days ago.

My other major complaint, besides the pacing which is really uneven throughout, has to do with the following: a few chapters felt out of place – especially one concerning everyone’s favourite Obi-Wan, which I can only imagine the editor forgot to delete, or perhaps the publisher inserted into the book by mistake. Bit of a weird flex, as the kids say.

My score for Ahsoka is 4/5 stars – with a recommendation to listen to the audiobook if you can, since it’s nothing short of brilliant. Please, Mister Mickey Mouse, gimme more Ahsoka stuff narrated by Ashley Ekcstein, sir!

*Though I make fun of this, I do actually believe that the adult way in which the Clone Wars, Rebels and, yes, this book too, deal with a variety of heavy topics is mature and something kids should bear witness to. The Clone Wars in particular has a depth of interesting topics, which are very relevant to the world we live in.

Talking about Star Wars on Under a Pile of Books

I’m on a podcast, y’all! *Squeals*

This is the first ever podcast I’ve done and though I was a little nervous and I did fumble words twice or thrice, I thought the end product turned out quite well! Chatting with fellow book blogger and Star Wars afficionado Calvin Park was tremendous fun – looking forward to next time! We spoke about so many different elements of the universe – the old Knights of the Old Republic Games, the original Thrawn trilogy, the Clone Wars and what we hope for in terms of what comes next for the movies!

You can listen to the podcast on Spotify:

That’s it for this edition of Saturday Star Wars! Thanks for joining me – come back next week!

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.

The Outer Worlds Review – Great Dialogue, Good Characters…Okay-ish Gameplay?

The Outer Worlds was one of the games I was most excited about in 2019 – so why did it take me this long to finish it? It’s got a lot going for it – the great dialogue, the memorable characters who don’t get nearly enough screen-time, and the…okay…gameplay? No, that doesn’t sound right – Obsidian wouldn’t do something like offer the minimal amount of customization in terms of weapons and equipment, right? They wouldn’t offer us a really boring Perk system in the place of Fallout’s V.A.T.s, would they?

Oh, they would? Ah, then.

That is unfortunate.

It’s not that I disliked The Outer Worlds – but I’m nowhere near as taken with it as I hoped I would be. In this twenty-two minute long video, I’ve gone at great length to explain what my problems with Obsidian’s latest consist of.

Month in Review: January 2020 at the Reliquary

Greetings, fabled followers, craven cultists, grimoire gnomes and blog butterflies! The first twelfth of 2020 is behind us and the eternal question must be asked: What the heck happened last month?

Here, at the Reliquary, not too much. Books were read, old posts revisited, humans hunted for spo–don’t know where that came from, to tell you right. Let’s see wot’s wot!

I read the best Fantasy Release of January 2020…

Even though I read none of the other releases of the month, I have to say, the Shadow Saint proved brilliant every step of the way. Hanrahan’s Black Iron Gods series has been a revelation, a celebration of the imagination, a wonderful journey into the dark and the macabre. Fascinating characters, deep lore, yet more impressive worldbuilding and truly one of the best character arcs I’ve come across in recent years. You owe it to yourself to read Gareth’s work. But if you’re still on the fence, you can take a glance at my review!

…And Caught up on one of the Finest Debuts of 2019!

Alix E. Harrow sure writes pretty. So pretty in fact that it’s easy to forget to come up with full sentences – The Ten Thousand Doors of January will leave you grasping for breath with the sheer beauty of its prose. It emulates a female bildungsroman; January’s ‘stream-of-consciousness’ offers a wonderful vessel to tell this most unusual story, with its great respect for words and stories and the Doors between worlds. Breathtaking.

My review awaits you here.

I Looked at Characters, and Found them Lacking, thanks to…

I am counting down the days – and books – until I have the chance to dig back into Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. A fascinating work, which does some very interesting things to the notion of character. I’ve spoken more about it here.

I Finished Catch-22!

With Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five behind me in 2019, I thought it was a good time to read the other great Post-WW2 anti-war classic, Catch-22. I have neither scored it, nor reviewed it yet but I was shook, you guys.I haven’t laughed at something this dark since Erikson and Abercrombie; the same sort of excellent gallows’ humour, mixed in with high stakes and a message at once fatalistic and hopeful.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

I Finally Got some K. J. Parker Into My System with Prosper’s Demon!

And what remarkable style he has. An excellent novella, I highly recommend it.

What’s Next?

Good question! There’s some Star Wars nonsense at work, presently – I’ll be writing a review on the audiobook of Ahsoka, which is nothing short of a real fun space journey with one of the most lovable characters of the Star Wars universe!

I’m also considering whether to post the notes I take on my study of “The Theory of the Novel” by McKeon – a massive side-project I’m undertaking as part of my bachelor’s. Not necessarily the most interesting reading for people uninterested in the in-depth study of literature but there you have it.

I’ve also got to work on a bunch of SPFBO content for Booknest.eu! I’ll be posting my review of A Sea of Broken Glass over there in just a few days; after, I’ve got interviews to prepare for all the finalists willing to chat with me about their books!

There’s yet more to come!