The Book of Phoenix. Book Review

phoenixThe Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
Hodder & Stoughton, h/b, 240pp, £18.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann

Phoenix was created by scientists and lives in a Tower. Artificially accelerated and controlled during her short life, she was designed with abilities beyond normal humans. After the death of her love, Saeed, she questions the methods of the organisation that created her and their intentions for her. After a destructive escape aided by her friend Mmuo, Phoenix discovers she has powers far greater than anything her designers had planned. She flees to Ghana but realises that her former captors will always pursue her. Along with her friends she takes the fight to her creators, aiming to bring down the Towers and free others who have been captured and engineered.

There is a strong feel for storytelling in this book. The bulk of the story is written in first person and is Phoenix telling the tale of her life in her own terms. There is a clarity and informality to Pheonix’s words, creating a sense of connection and intimacy with her. Her story seems to take place about a century into the future, and within Phoenix’s story there are the stories of other characters. Around Phoenix’s tale is a framing narrative of someone in a further future discovering her account and even that is eventually given a wider historical context. There are tales within tales here and the importance of storytelling, narrative and truth is a strong theme of the book. Phoenix admits early on that although she was given all the reading material and information she asked for during her captivity she was still misled. After her escape the establishment that pursues her creates a false narrative about her, and her fellows, using the ubiquitous media that is under their control. Despite this Phoenix is able to find allies in those who accept her as an individual. Although her angelic appearance ties into long-held cultural and religious beliefs she doesn’t play on the narrative associated with this as it is not part of her identity. She often states that she is a villain, an identification which seems at odd with her position in the narrative and her intentions.

The speculative elements in the story are strong and present from the start, existing in that interesting grey area between science fiction and fantasy. The future settings and research of the organisation that created Phoenix suggest science fiction, but Phoenix is more than her creators can explain and there’s enough mystery and sense of wonder to please fantasy fans. In the end categorisation doesn’t matter, it is not the point. This is a bold mixing of elements found in speculation and fantasy, in the science fictional dreams of mankind bettering itself and harnessing nature, and in its nightmares of going too far and facing forces greater than us, be they spiritual or extra-terrestrial. There are glimpses of things otherworldly and strange, as well as the results of unrestrained mad science. It displays a great deal of invention and these elements are scattered throughout the book. Phoenix herself is a result of various influences -some she discovers, some mysterious- and the hubris of the corporation and its scientists is that they believe they can understand, define and use her.

The worldbuilding of this future seems slim in places, I suspect purposefully so. Phoenix is initially isolated from -and then exists on the edge of- modern Western society. Technology and science have unquestionably moved on, the Towers’ research has had undoubted benefits, but the New York setting feels like a vaguely updated version of now. The first place to feel vivid and rounded is the community where Phoenix lives in Ghana. This isn’t surprising as it’s the first place where she is accepted as a person, even if that acceptance necessitates disguise. The Ghanaian setting does not feel futuristic, which plays into the idea that the future continues to be unevenly distributed. The forces of Western imperialism are still strong and the place is targeted for its resources, with the local women being used along the way. It is clear that this a future constructed by and for those in power and that needs changing. The further future of the framing narrative is very different and we do get more description; the link between the two times is a source of interest throughout the story.

Phoenix’s strongest relationships are with other occupants of the Tower where she was raised. She loves Saeed, whose origin is in the streets of Cairo, but doesn’t understand his cynicism until it is too late. She’s also close to Mmuo, a Nigerian man who can phase through walls and helps with her escape and retaliation plans. She encounters various people and beings, some are very strange and remain largely undefined. Others are just ordinary folk trying to get by, this includes those who help her and the staff of the organisation that opposes her. We learn enough about the scientist who raised and deceived Pheonix to understand her actions, even if Phoenix cannot forgive them. We also see that a guard can fall for his prisoner and that girls who should know better will make dangerous choices about men. The real antagonists of the book remain faceless and remote; the organisations and governments that pursue Phoenix and the powerful men whose only goal is to better themselves at the expense of all else.

This is a standalone prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s book Who Fears Death, which I have not read but am now planning to pick up. The Book of Phoenix is an interesting and powerful book that explores themes that are much discussed at the moment and deserve consideration. The book can be read as a critique of the big, powerful systems and structures that are part of Western culture. This is about marginalised and dispossessed people interacting with, or against, an authoritarian establishment which sees them only as resources. This includes comment on how the West interacts with other parts of the world and how organisations treat the people they exploit. It is also a good story with a strong central character, a lot of glimpses into a wide and fantastical universe, and an ending that didn’t go as I had expected.