Novella with Protagonist of Color

Sorry, y’all! I’ve been trying and trying to read another book that has great reviews but I just can’t get into it. I decided to take a break from it and discovered this gem of a novella! Books come to you when the time is right, and the time was right for me to meet Binti.

Let’s talk about Binti, the accidental heroine of our story. (Aren’t they all accidental heroines in some form or fashion? I digress…) One of 10 kids, Binti is a 16-year-old Himba girl who leaves home in the dead of night to fulfill her dream of attending the renowned Oomza University. She boards a transporter that will take her to an interplanetary ship on its way to University.

Family is everything to the Himba and they are known for being reclusive, not mixing with other races or communities. Desert dwellers, the Himba love their land and go so far as to use it to cleanse and purify their bodies, continually marking themselves with the red clay of their region. Binti quickly feels conspicuous for the first time in her life, never having been away from her home city before. Her hair is thick and wild and plaited, dressed in the sweet oil and clay mixture from her land; she jingles from the steel rings she wears around her ankles (protection from snake bites); her clothing is different and suited for hot desert terrain. She experiences disdain and lots of side-eye from the others she while on her journey to her transport.

What would push Binti to leave home in such a devious manner? Her planetary exams score was so high in mathematics that she was admitted to Oomza University with a full scholarship no less. Even though she would be the first of her people to venture out and attend the University, her family is up in arms and don’t consider that to be an option. Knowing that pleading and reason are useless, Binti steals away in the dead of night to make her way through space to search out a new future for herself. Binti heartbreakingly knows her family will be furious and probably never accept her again, but she boldly follows the path she feels is best for her. You get a real sense of Binti weighing options that are not ideal and trying to make the best decision that will be true and honest and just, which bodes well for future events in the story

As Binti journeys with a space ship full of professors and other students to the University, she makes friends and learns to make her way in such a different culture. As she’s sitting in the lunch hall with her squad, admiring her crush, she is suddenly covered in a spray of blood. Her companion has just been killed by a member of the Meduse race who have surprisingly transported onto the ship. Everyone is killed but Binti (for reasons I won’t disclose here), and she is terrorized for several days as she hides in her room. Turns out, the Meduse race have a huge grudge to pick with Oomza University – an event that really has nothing to do with Binti and the other passengers. They are unfortunate collateral damage in a plan of revenge and possible war.

Binti and the Meduse finally find a way to communicate and Binti has to decide if she can rise above the need for revenge for a greater good or if the loss of her new tribe of people is too heart-wrenching to overcome. Either decision will come at great personal cost to Binti.

I really liked this book. I listened to the audio and the narrator has a lovely accent and inflection that drops you right into Binti’s point of view. The math and science emphasis is huge. Binti’s hair, for example, is braided according to a mathematical code that was designed by her father and identifies her place in the lineage of her family. Binti is a brilliant mathematician and comes from a long line of people who study the secrets of the universe, although the Himba study the universe from an internal rather than external perspective. It also has a feel of Star Trek about it with the disparate groups of people trying to come to terms with each other and live companionably, if not exactly friendly.

The book is short (the audio is only two and a half hours), so it can easily be finished in an afternoon, and is the first in a series. The shortness of the story by no means impacts the depth and is winner of both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. The author, Nnedi Okorafor, is American with Nigerian roots. No moss grows under her feet, and she has an impressive list of works before and after Binti. She has a Ted Talk here about sci-fi stories and the imagining of a future Africa, and also has a new comic series coming out about Black Panther’s Shuri. Another novel, Who Fears Death, has been optioned as an HBO series. It’s been in my TBR pile for awhile and may have to now move to the top!

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Book Based on the Cover

Never judge a book by its cover, right? But we do. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but we still do it. In this book, they also judge a person based on their cover – tattoos on the skin, to be more exact. An appropriate book for the category, now that I think of it! It’s hard to see the details of the cover in this photo, but it’s flooded with coppery foiled images all over, much like a variety of tattoos. It’s really gorgeous and, honestly, what drew my attention to a book in a genre filled with imaginative covers.

Ink is a young adult dystopian fantasy, a genre I’m already over in so many ways. The protagonist, Leora, has just suffered the loss of her father. She and her mother are grieving but still have to forge their way through everyday life. Leora is about to graduate and has missed quite a bit of school while caring for her dying father. Her best friend, Verity, helps her with her studies and the two graduate with high marks, allowing them to obtain the jobs they’ve dreamed of for so long – Verity in the government, and Leora as an inker (aka tattoo artist in our world).

So, what’s so fancy and important about being a tattoo artist? In the world of Ink, people are marked with tattoos to recognize the events of their lives. Some tattoos are mandatory, like a name at two days old, a family tree on one’s back, lines and other symbols for accolades, accomplishments, or crimes. Other tattoos are self-chosen by individuals to reflect personal events or interests, and the inkers have to be talented and intuitive to bring all of these images together so that one’s life story can be read on the skin. It’s a really unique idea and I like that part a lot.

This is where it gets weird for me and I couldn’t shake the creepy factor for the rest of the book. When a person dies, like Leora’s father, the body is taken to a Flayer. This Flayer removes the tattoos carefully from the body and the skin remnants are stretched and bound like a page, and compiled in a book. So, the family has a book of the life of the deceased person and can remember them through the tattoos on the skin. The book as a whole is judged by the government and, if the person lived a good enough life, the book is placed in a library to be remembered. If the judgement doesn’t come out well, the book is burned and the person is forgotten. Turns out, Leora’s father is not who she thought he was and his book is brought up short in the judging process and burned. Leora finds that many people in her life are not who they seemed and she spends the remainder of the book trying to sort things out.

Because of who Leora’s father turned out to be, certain factions have been waiting for her to grow up and be used as a political pawn. The neighboring “enemy” are the Blanks, a group of people so full of shame and deviousness that they refuse to have anything tattooed on their skin and are surely working at this very moment to take over Leora’s world. So claims the government, anyway. There are the usual tropes of a young girl being plucked from obscurity and used in the name of rebellion and a 1984-style government that has fooled the people into believing everything they say. It’s done to death at this point. While I liked the idea of the ink telling the story of a life, the peeling off of the skin to be preserved in a book is just something I couldn’t get over. The end of the book was also very rushed and jumbled to me, with Leora vacillating very quickly from hating everyone who had deceived her and turning pro-government, to rebuking all of that and landing on the side of the rebellion. I just didn’t buy it and really never got on board for caring for Leora as a character. This is the first in a new series and one that I probably won’t be revisiting.

As always, read it for yourself and make your own conclusions. There are other reviews here, so you can see what others like and dislike about it. I found his link to an interview with Alice Broadway in The Guardian where she discusses her split with her faith that inspired Leora’s story, and another interview here where she discusses her writing process. I’m also including a link to some of the best in he YA dystopian genre. A few of them have been on my radar for awhile, and I’ll probably go ahead and read them despite being burned out on the category. You never know when the next great read will present itself!