Fiction Reviews

The Book of Phoenix

(2015) Nnedi Okorafor, Hodder &Stoughton, £18.99, hrdbk, 232pp, ISBN 978-1-473-61794-0


This is one of those books that grabbed me almost from the first page - well written and imaginative.

It is not, however, the first book to open with the old technique of providing an explanation of where the story came from though it does do so in a more up-to-date take on the method. Set several hundred years in the future, well after the time 'when it all went wrong', a wanderer taking shelter from a storm enters a desert cave and finds it full of old computers. Rifling through the archives he comes across The Book of Phoenix and so we find ourselves in the main story told by Phoenix herself.

She lives in Manhattan, on the 28th floor of Tower 7, a science centre that specialises in advanced genetic manipulation. She is a SpeciMen, an artificially created experimental variant of a human; though only two years old, her development was accelerated so she is now a full adult. She has no other experience of life, no concept that her life of being continually experimented on is unusual, that the pain and suffering she is put through is not normal. To those that run the place, she is simply an experiment, not a person.

Most of the experiments consist of seeing how much heat she can take and how much she can create within herself, followed by periods of treatment and convalescence before the experiments resume. She is not the only one; there are others, each a different experiment, and each, ultimately, intended to be weapon of some sort. Whilst they have some communal time together they are mostly alone. Then one day Saeed, the nearest she has to a friend, sees something terrible - so terrible that he takes his own life. Deeply upset at this loss, for the first time Phoenix starts to think about her life, about where she is and all that happens to her.

She is visited by Mmuo, another inmate, who has the ability to pass through walls, and together they plan an escape. It does not go well; in the ensuing battle her body heats up out of control, the tower is destroyed, and there are few survivors. Indeed even Phoenix herself dies. A little later, though, she is reborn, finds herself with growing wings, and realises just why they called her Phoenix. After that the story really gets going. She is on the run (or should that be the fly?) and is anxious to find out about the other towers, about others that exist as experiments.

To tell you more would deprive you of the inventiveness of the story as we follow the progress of Phoenix and her kind against the huge organisation responsible for their creation. Suffice it to say that they really should not have created Phoenix - she becomes far more powerful than they expected, and her revenge is absolute.

I found that the story kept me engrossed, wanting to know what happened next - and a lot happens. The author has been most imaginative and Phoenix’s story took me to places I had not expected. If I had a criticism, it is only that the epilogue, a touch over a single page, was unnecessary and detracts from the whole.

As reviews go, this is a short one. To tell you more would diminish your enjoyment as you too follow Phoenix and her trials and tribulations to their inevitable end. I found it a journey well worth following.

Peter Tyers

See also David's review of The Book of Phoenix.

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