The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor is a short, apocalyptic sci fi novel that essentially chronicles the truly epic rise and journey of a world-changing girl named Phoenix (like the bird) (not related to Jean Grey). But don’t let that stop you from reading it.
Full disclosure: I’m not really a fan of superheroes in general. I’ve enjoyed most of the Marvel movies (and have my opinions on how the DCEU should get its act together), but to me, whether films or comics, there’s always too much emphasis on “look at the cool things this fictional character can do!” and not enough on “here’s a reason that it’s interesting!” I can invent a cat who shoots radioactive bullets out of his tail because he’s from another planet just as easily as the next guy can. So what?
I ran across a sample from the opening chapter of Phoenix somewhere online. It’s yet another take on the “young mutant humans under observation in a presumably-evil lab who eventually figure it out and rebel” – nothing new or noteworthy to me, and given that synopsis, I’d’ve passed. I’m not actually sure why I read the sample in the first place.
But the narrator’s voice was raw and urgent, in an intriguing sci fi setting, and she wasted no time in setting things on fire, literally (all things of which I am very much a fan). Obviously-vitally-important characters died right away, and their loss was important. More than anything, the author put me right inside the narrator’s skin in a way that I’ve rarely experienced. I absolutely had to keep reading it. Immediately.
Upon download, I learned that while the first chapter was the first chapter, there was a prologue that added considerable scope to the world, that set up fascinating questions, that positioned itself in opposition to the book’s own narrative. I was more intrigued.
Right from the start, the pace of Phoenix never let up. There was barely enough time to ask what would happen next, because it kept happening. I couldn’t stop reading. Questions answered just meant more questions asked.
It’s not just a thrilling story, though: it has weight, significance, relevance. It’s not just the emotional weight that comes with the characters, either, but from expertly tying together themes like race; gender; economics and morality in science; trickle-down consequences; and human cost – things that demand our attention, now even more than when it was published in 2015.
Amidst all that, I don’t know how the author, Nnedi Okorafor, did it, but as I read about Phoenix, I felt like I was taking her journey with her. I felt like it was me learning about my wings, coming to understand what had been done to me, taking action. As that happened, I started to think that I could do more in real life, have a real influence on my circumstances. I felt as powerful as Phoenix.
I have to assume that that’s why people like superheroes. And I guess I can’t hold that against them anymore.
Side note: Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter, longer than the one I read, at Clarkesworld.
Another side note: The Book of Phoenix is a distant prequel to Ms Okorafor’s award-winning first novel, Who Fears Death, which I also just read. It dealt with very real, important, under-addressed social issues like female circumcision, weaponized rape, and racial discrimination, and these are stories that need telling and discussions that need to be had. There are some pretty cool links between HFD and Phoenix, as well, that are unexpected and welcome. However, I didn’t actually enjoy the story – the characters were boring, petty, and inconsistent; the writing was clunky; and the whole book somehow felt simultaneously rushed and like nothing was ever happening. Coming off of the newer installment in the universe, Who Fears Death was a bit of a letdown, so I recommend sticking with Phoenix.