(2015) Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder &Stoughton, £18.99, hrdbk, 232pp, ISBN 978-1-444-76280-8
In the very far future, in the desert a man called Sunuteel , finds a cave of old computers and an audio file ‘The Book of Phoenix’. This is her autobiography and confession. Created in Tower 7, accelerated to age forty in two year, she lives on the 28th floor of Tower 7 in New York alongside other man-made creations called ‘SpeciMen’. Phoenix is content with a life of tests and reading books. But the death of one of them Saeed, altered to eat metals, glass and dirt, makes Phoenix decide to escape. She will harness her powers of fire and fight to find the other SpeciMan them from the Towers across the world.
This is not an epic novel in terms of its length. What is noticeable is how much Okorafor does with the story. You get the sense of the future with mentions of tech like flexible gel screens and a sub-plot about a new type of drone. At the same time, the narrator. Phoenix is an interesting first-person narrator, being able to strike a balance between an initially innocent wander and an intelligent observer. Considering who and what she is meant to be, credit should be given to Okorafor for how believable she makes her.
The narrative is also interesting in that while it is in theory a science-fiction novel, it still feels like a fantasy one in so many levels. The imagery keeps linking to the genre, the giant tree that grows through the building, the winged people, an important seed taken from a tree. At one point, a reference to the super-hero genre confirms the point that it is possible to see this book as a story about stories. It already begins with a found manuscript that somebody is reading. The lead character admits that she spent most of her early captivity reading. Phoenix hears people tell their stories of their life and how they came to be. As a character she evokes both an angel with her wings and flight and a demon with her fire and her rebellion. A library plays an important part in the plot. Without spoiling the ending of the novel, you can see it as adding weight to this story-about-story interpretation.
The narrative also has several recurring themes including: exploitation, rebellion and re-birth. These occur both in the main plot arc and within the individual stories that Phoenix hears, she witnesses and learns trying while to find out her origins.
In conclusion, this is one of those books that manages to be both a light and heavy read at that same time. It is not padded beyond its length and keeps you turning the pages with new developments and ideas. At the same time, it examines familiar themes and manages to make something new, exploring the nature of stories and history and how they become important.
This is apparently a prequel to another book,Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor. However, I did not know this until researching the novel and it doesn’t affect your ability enjoyment of the story.
See also Peter's review of The Book of Phoenix.
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