Review: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

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4.5 out of 5 Flaming Stars

I don’t know why, but his words made me want to cry. I saw no cybernetic limbs, mutations, alterations, additions, or subtractions on Lurrenz. He was just a man. He was like the people I met on my way to Ghana. He accepted what I was as if I was normal. He gazed at me but didn’t stare. His world was big and there was room enough for me.

I read Nnedi Okorafor for the first time this year, and quickly figured I need to read all of her books. So far, we are 3 for 3 in that I would recommend her works to anybody that loves to read. This doesn’t quite have the driving focus of the Binti novellas, but it still has the dreamy quality and the mix of science fiction that feels informed by fantasy and is based on a lot of different folktales and myths. The prose is gorgeous – it’s what kept the rating up there. And of course, the story itself was amazing, even if I felt it dragged a bit at times. It took me a week to read – and that is hecka long for me. Yeah. I still say hecka. But despite my quibbles, this is quality.

This is the story of Phoenix, and it’s a prequel to Who Fears Death, a book I haven’t read yet, so I can’t talk about that (spoiler alert: it’s on my library hold list). Phoenix was grown in the 7th tower, the hub of Lifegen Technologies, just called Big Eye by the inmates. She is a SpeciMen, one among many, a genetic experiment who has been “accelerated”. She’s only two years old in the way we reckon age, but has progressed to about forty, and that’s probably as old as she will appear. Her life in the tower is safe but tedious. She reads voraciously, anything and everything they will give her… and in their arrogance, they give her a lot, being fairly generous with information about the company and what they do. Then her tendency to overheat endangers her e-reader, and they resort to giving her physical books. Yes, the Phoenix heats up. Foreshadowing.

There are things that aren’t so great about the Tower, but Phoenix doesn’t have a basis for comparison to anything else, so she doesn’t even tell us the horrendous things done to her in the name of science. You’d think someone, when talking about they place they live, would mention they’re taken down to the basement where their caregivers try and burn holes in their skin only they aren’t able to because of their genetic modifications so they do it again and again and again, and it really hurts. But Phoenix doesn’t tell us this till much later in the novel. At one point, she says “We were so colonized we built our own shackles,” and that is one of the backbones of the novel. We begin in America, but Phoenix says that nearly everyone in the Tower is of African descent, either genetically manipulated and created from African people and even animals, or snatched right off the street. The story eventually leads us all over the world, to places colonized and plundered by European society.

One of those kidnapped is Saeed. He and Phoenix are falling in love, but it’s not like the Big Eye want the inmates fraternizing. Saeed can survive on rubble, rust, concrete, glass, etc, but is sickened by regular food. When he sees something inside the tower so horrible that he can’t comprehend it, he takes his own life. Phoenix is devastated. She lashes out at the Big Eye and discovers a new depth to her abilities. She glows white hot, hotter than the sun, destroying the very foundation of the building that has held her captive for so long. But she hasn’t killed everyone, and there are 6 other towers. Now she’s a fugitive. (None of this is spoilers really – it’s in the blurb.)

Phoenix struggles with what she is, her very nature, and her purpose. As she blazes a trail across the planet, she lights up other SpeciMen held in the towers and starts a movement. Very topical at the moment… There’s a letter left at the scene that I felt summed up Phoenix’s development.

Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What is your purpose? Do you ever ask yourself these questions? Does the answer scare you? To feel fear is better than feeling nothing. To feel fear is to be alive and possibly change. We believe you can change. But not with ease.

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This could have been written for or about Phoenix. She sees herself as a villain, though she wears the figure of an angel. That may or may not be a spoiler… but considering all the covers, you can probably figure that out. She feels like she was made one thing, so she must be it… but it’s the people around her who try to convince her she controls her own destiny, that she doesn’t have to play into the hands of the people who made her. Talk about nature vs. nurture. She believes she was crafted to be a thing of destruction – but a Phoenix is a perfect metaphor for life and creation, as well. In order to create, or birth something, one must first destroy.

This is grand, and sweeping, and diverse and beautifully written. If you love sci fi and fantasy, I urge you to read this, or Okorafor’s other works. One of the best things you can say about a book is that it stays with you – I really haven’t stopped thinking about this since I read it. Below, I want to talk about something that was really cool for me in the reading experience – but if you are someone who doesn’t want to know ANYTHING about a book beyond what the blurb reveals in your reviews, this might spoil things just a little bit.

In the beginning of the book, we don’t start with Phoenix. We are way in the future and meet an elderly couple who love in a blasted desert. The Book of Phoenix is actually a book that the old man, Sunateel has found. There is an incredible sense of urgency and doom that Okorafor builds into the scene, with dangerous weather threatening, the age of the people, the desert setting. It’s amazing and feels very… dangerous. I was just kinda sitting in fear the whole time I read that part. Only, as I got sucked in to the story being narrarated to Sunateel… I forgot about the old couple. I completely took the story in hook, line and sinker, and at the end when it came back to the old man just sitting there, basically listening to an audiobook, I was kinda freaked out. I felt like I’d gone through a time portal. I felt like Sunateel, having lost himself inside this story, not noticing his wife has been pinging him about the impending storm. It was cool. Sunateel was kind of a misogynist pig in the end who distorted Phoenix’s story for his own narrative, but … it was cool. It was an interesting reading experience.

 

 

 

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