My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked this one up for a multitude of reasons but mostly I’ve been hearing so many good things about Ms Okorafor's work. I was hesitant because I do not really like dystopic fiction. I should have listened to that little voice in my head. I try not to bring my personal preferences into my reviews with a lot of weight but its there. This was a four to five star read for me in the beginning but about midway through it plummeted.
In honesty there isn’t anything truly new in the basic plot. It’s a SF standard, think Jessica Alba’s Dark Angel only less Latin and more African (and yes race plays a large role in this). Scientists are experimenting on humans to create a weapon or so Phoenix thinks (and this is in her pov). Phoenix is a SpeciMen (which is a nice play on words), an accelerated human. She’s only a couple of years old but appears to be forty. She was born and raised in Tower 7 in New York. Then something bad happens and Phoenix fights her way free of the Tower only to learn her name reflects her actual abilities.
When she recovers, she has a new ability (minor spoiler but it is on the cover, she ends up with wings) she flies to Ghana and I really enjoyed the first half of this book. Phoenix’s naivete came across so well. It felt real as opposed to the ‘this character is naive so let’s have her do stupid things’ I see too often. Phoenix’s anger and grief feel real as well.
Then she returns to New York (partially against her will) and is reunited with some of her friends, other SpeciMens and decides she’s a villain and this is where I lose tons of sympathy for her. Phoenix doesn’t just hold the Big Eyes, the scientists, responsible for the torturous experiments being run on the SpeciMen; she blames everyone and plans to kill everyone. There is no real exploration of this, not by her or her friends. She is temporarily turned from that plan but it was enough for me to lose sympathy for her.
I did like the writing style and I liked what she did mostly with Phoenix as a character (ditto Saeed and Mmuno and Seven). It was very interesting to see SF with almost exclusively African characters. Even most of the scientists we see in the Big Eye towers are also African. It gives a non-African reader a taste of what it feels like to read a book where they have no presentation (which is what most PoC deal with in the majority of fiction).
What I didn’t like, other than Phoenix deciding she’d rather be a villain was that really there is no depth to the Big Eyes. Why were they doing this? Just to experiment? I got the idea that it was because they wanted super soldiers but they were very one dimensional. Also there was a weird mix of science and almost mystical elements (because I literally have no idea what sort of gene engineering could result in a human phoenix and Mmuno’s abilities were actually learned in a more shamanistic way). But I could handle that.
However at the end of the day this is an angry, downright miserable story in many ways without much in the way of a happy ending. Granted life doesn’t always have a happy ending. I think that’s my overall problem with dystopias. Life is full of anger and horrible things. When I read, I want to escape that, not work through it with more of the same. Mmuno refers to Phoenix as the angriest woman in the world and she is. After a while, that wears on you. Anger is so ugly. Would I read more by Ms. Okorafor? Yes but I’m not sure I’d read the next book in this series however.
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