Nnedi Okorafor is an author I've been meaning to read for a long time. I used the excuse of my Black History month reading goals to pick up a few of her books, so I ended up reading the novella Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home very close together.
Binti got a lot of glowing reviews when it first came out, and I can absolutely understand why. Binti herself is such a lovable character--brave, smart, headstrong, and loyal. She's been accepted to the best university in the known galaxy, Oomza Uni. She's not the first human to go, but most people who travel are Khoush, while Binti is Himba. She's the first member of her community to travel off planet, and she pretty much has to sneak away.
On the ship to the university, though, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, a race with a feud against the Khoush. Binti survives, but she has to use every resource she has to stay alive and prevent a war.
The great parts of this book were the details about Binti and the people she meets. Her connection to her people, the clay she wears on her skin, the mathematical skills she has--these details are lovely. I got confused, though, when the ship was attacked and the plot started hinging on a random object she had in her pocket--a trinket she found in the desert years ago and carried for good luck, but that also turned out to have magic? technological? properties that saved her life. I don't know if it counts as deus ex machina if it happens in the beginning of the story instead of the end, but it threw me off my stride, and it left me stumbling for the rest of the story.
In the second book, Home, Binti has been studying at Oomza University for almost a year and decides she wants to visit home, along with a new friend. This is a fraught decision, because her family does not approve of her leaving, and her friend is from a race that has been at war with humans (Khoush, not Himba, but isn't a human a human?) for ages.
Again, I started off confused, because Binti was being hit by waves of anger that seem to come from nowhere, and also maybe an empathic connection that lets her know what her friend is feeling when it's far away. This part seemed very disjointed and unconnected from the narrative; I wasn't quite sure what it meant, either what it was describing or what that implied.
Anyway, though, the next part of the story is really lovely and powerful as Binti undertakes the second space journey of her life. Since the first one ended in terrible violence that has haunted her, the middle part of this story is a powerful recounting of facing trauma. I especially loved that it didn't have any easy answers; sometimes things are hard and sometimes they're easier, and she takes care of herself and feels a little better and maybe will continue to get better. It's a very realistic sense of fallout from the previous story and I admire that a great deal.
Then at home, there are some really lovely family relationships to explore. Again, the strength here is that nothing is black and white--her family loves her and is angry that she left. Binti wants to belong and doesn't quite anymore. By leaving, she has become something different, something that their society doesn't have a place for, and it's not a simple thing to deal with that. The nuances of how the different characters handle this and react to the changes in Binti--everything from her new friend to the different clothes she wears--are well-observed and generous, even to those who behave the worst.
There are further plot developments that seem to come out of nowhere--people and legends who come up in the middle of the book and turn out to have been a part of her history all along--that I found a bit confusing from a narrative perspective. But I think that this is a different style of storytelling, with less of a through arc and more of an emotional arc. I'm still wrestling with how to read it right.
There is so much to love here--the representation, the cultures, and the diversity that Okorafor brings to her universe. And the depictions of complicated family bonds, and how it's not always possible for everyone to get what they want, is something I've always wished someone would depict in this way. I'm not sure I've found my footing on these books, but I can tell you that when the next one comes out (because warning: cliffhanger!), I will be picking it up instantly.