Review: What Sunny Saw in the Flames

sunny ic for review

What Sunny Saw In The Flames, previously published in the US as Akata Witch, is one of the books by one of my favorite writers that I hadn’t read yet. Published by Cassava Republic, the book is out in the UK now! So run to the nearest bookstore!

What Sunny Saw is a wonderful tale of magic and growing into yourself set in Nigeria. Our protagonist Sunny Nwazue is 12 years old with albinism, she is also American-born, like the author, only having moved to Nigeria when she was 9. The US-title Akata Witch, a slur for American-born Africans further drives home this facet of Sunny’s identity. Living in the town of Aba with her parents and younger brothers, Sunny is furthermore Igbo, one ethnicity in Nigeria. I love this representation of complex identities that also mirror my own experience. We are rarely ever just A or B and this novel also shows the Nigerian perspective, people emigrating, people returning, and people visiting. This goes against most Western tales around movement and immigration which usually only present us with that infamous single story.

We first get an inkling of what is to come, when Sunny, as the title promises, sees something in the flame of a candle. Her vision is of a terrible future and shakes her to the core. She begins the get some answers, when she befriends Orlu and Chichi, who introduce her to the world of the Leopard People. Together with Sasha, they form a quartet of magical students, learning about their juju abilities and spirit selves. But Sunny has the most to learn as she is what is called a free agent, a Leopard person whose parents are Lambs (non-magical). However, her vision looms over her newly-discovered identity and soon the group must face the evil Black Hat.

Inevitably comparisons with Harry Potter come up, but as Brendon importantly points out, “We must stop comparing literature and stories in this way because it gives all the credit to the stories of privilege (White, western, straight, male/man, able).” And so, what annoys me with these comparisons is that Harry Potter and other white, Western works are irretrievably set up as originator of certain plots or the origin from which all else strays. However, as we know, Rowling as well as many other Western writers before her have and continue to “borrow” from other works, mythologies and cultures.

World-building is something that I find Okorafor just excels at. I really enjoyed the culture of the Leopard People and also the book inside the book: Fast Facts for Free Agents by Isong Abong Effiong Isong. I’d love to read more from it. Leopard culture is steeped in Igbo and other West African culture and after my last read taught me about Yoruba culture, it was great to revisit and learn more about the Igbo. Some of these days I need to pick up some more non-Western mythology works! It’s a wonderfully diverse world in What Sunny Saw, and the Leopard community too is made up of various ethnic groups and the African diaspora and globalization have led to secret communities all over the world!

I also appreciated the depiction of everyday struggles of girls in how Sunny has to deal with an abusive father and housework is of course made her chore. Sunny is clever and fierce though and uses some of these expectations to keep her juju abilities and Leopard identity secret from her family.

I would complain about the ending seeming a tad abrupt, but really I enjoy the learning about other worlds parts of books more than violent showdowns so I don’t care, I just had the best time reading this one! Cannot wait for the sequel!!

Other thoughts:

Gaming for Justice

what the log had to say

Spirit blog

Zezee with Books

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll link!

Disclaimer: I received a free e-book from the publisher, but never fear I remain my opinionated self!

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22 thoughts on “Review: What Sunny Saw in the Flames

    1. Thanks, Amal! Definitely give it a go, Okorafor is always fantastic! I think your kids might be a bit too young but when they turn 12-ish maybe they’ll enjoy it as well 🙂

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  1. “However, as we know, Rowling as well as many other Western writers before her have and continue to “borrow” from other works, mythologies and cultures.” So true! Even as a die hard Harry Potter fan I must acknowledge this. I love the sound of this complex identity narrative! Sounds like another good one! Thanks, Bina!

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    1. This is definitely a great read, hope you’ll enjoy it, if you get around to it! 🙂 Yeah I think even as fans we can and need to look for such things. Hope we’ll get to see more attributions of source to diverse literature in the coming years!

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  2. Great review! Thank you for the link up and shout out! I think we chatted about this before, but I love how you build off the “Harry Potter” comparison and start the conversation about appropriation of mythologies from other cultures and THAT becomes the standard. AH so infuriating! But this is something we all must recognize, so I really appreciate you calling it out.

    All of us are on the edge of our seats for Akata Warrior!! I haven’t been this pumped about a series in a while.

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    1. It was such an important point you made! Eh just elaborating on your comment, but yeah it is infuriating, especially since we really know for a fact that so many works appropriate non-Western cultures and mythology. This always reminds me of the waterbending in Avatar, ugh!
      Yes! It’s really like a holiday gift with Okorafor announcing all these sequels, so happy we’ll get to read more about Sunny and Binti, too! 🙂

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    1. Yay, glad you have access through your library! Yeah not sure about the exact discussion between he different titles, whether it was cause “Akata” is derogatory or they just wanted to set themselves apart with the UK publication. Anyway hope you enjoy! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Vishy! Oh yes you definitely need to try her works 🙂 I always recommend Binti first cause it’s a short novella but super powerful!! Hope you’ll enjoy her works when you get to read them!

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  3. I read and reviewed this earlier this year and I enjoyed it. I loved Okorafor’s worldbuilding in this and how she represents different aspects of the African diaspora in the characters.
    I agree with you about comparisons to Harry Potter and the like when reviewers go through a book and judge it based solely on something similar they read before. However, I do find it helpful when reviewers point out similarities a story has to others I am familiar with. For this one, I pointed out that it is similar to the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books because those series are very popular and it’s highly likely that those who read my post will be familiar with them and will be able to get an idea of how the magical world in Okorafor’s book works. Doing this does make it seem like Rowling and Riordan are originators of that structure but I find it hard to work around that.

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    1. Thanks, added your link! 🙂 Yass the worldbuilding is so amazing, I continue to be impressed with her skills. Especially since Lagoon was so fantastic already.
      Yeah I know what you mean, I like getting recommendations of the if you liked this, then you’ll like… variety too. And that’s perfectly fine. The problem is just when some (white Western) works become the single point of reference. So that’s something to be worked at.

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  4. Brendon’s quote “We must stop comparing literature and stories in this way because it gives all the credit to the stories of privilege (White, western, straight, male/man, able)” is SO solid and amazing. LOVE IT. And I’ll probably reference it one day in a post of my own.

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  5. I adore this title — I think it’s better than the original title! — but the book wasn’t my favorite thing Okorafor’s written. Like you, I admired the worldbuilding, but I had issues with the way the story’s plot progressed, and it did end very abruptly. If she ends up writing a sequel I expect it’ll be quite a step up — I think she’s grown a TON as a writer since Akata Witch.

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  6. Nice review! Do you know how long this series will be? Also, I hate when people say book A is like book B, because it degrades the voice of author A, which isn’t cool. I hadn’t thought of voice B always being a person of privilege, but you’re right, it is.

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  7. How interesting that they’ve changed the title; I’m always curious when that happens. This is definitely on my TBR and I’m thrilled to hear that there will be a sequel too! Have you read any of Nalo Hopkinson’s works? I think there are some similarities, although she has been publishing much longer than NO so there’s a lovely backlist to explore if you’re unfamiliar with her stuff.

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