“Once the author wrote the story, the author became irrelevant. The author was dead. In The Book of Phoenix, this was certainly the case. Phoenix was dead. The story was alive, having separated from Phoenix as a child separated from her or his dying mother at birth. It was up to the reader to interpret what the story was really about.”
–The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor (227)
Well then let us interpret. No, no, wait. First, facts. This book is fucking awesome. It is about a genetically modified woman who is basically a human phoenix. In towers scattered across the United States more “abominations” have been created and are being used for whatever-the-fuck the scientists working there deem necessary. Human weapons. Human organ fields. Living ghosts. Immortals.
“Human beings make terrible gods.”
The world of The Book of Phoenix feels utterly complete—Manhatten is mostly underwater (thanks, global warming!), technology has advanced in ways that feel probable; a hundred details interwoven to make this place feel tangible—and the story is page-turning without sacrificing a millimeter of depth or nuance. There is commentary on racism (almost all of the gen-modified people are of African descent), on slavery, on the benefits and pitfalls of science, on revolution, on innocence, on love. There is a hilarious (if you notice it) moment when the story references one of Okorafor’s first published short stories, naming it as inspiration for a horrific technological advancement that would have the author turning in her grave. Har har har. (I snorted. That isn’t sarcastic laughter there.) There is also commentary on—oh yey, my favorite—how stories can bend and shape our realities, for better and for worse.
“I was an abomination. I’d read many books and this was clear to me.” (7)
Books get some love:
“I love books. I adore everything about them. I love the feel of the pages on my fingertips. They are light enough to carry, yet so heavy with worlds and ideas. I love the sound of the pages flicking against my fingers. Print against fingerprints. Books make people quiet, yet they are so loud. I love the smell of the pages, even of the newest physical books, which were so rarely made.” (135)
But so do e-readers, which is only fair:
“I liked the e-reader more. It took up less space, I could reread things when I wanted, there was a lot more to read and the e-pages didn’t smell so old and moldy.” (10)
“I loved the immediate page shift of digitals. The crispness of high-definition photo and print. Manipulating and flying through information and story was my first real lesson in the art of flight. Before my own wings grew in.” (135)
Meet the modern super-hero.
I have come to associate super heroes with large commercial franchises, have largely lost interest in them as Hollywood and big-name publishers polish them beyond interest or nuance. So I was shocked when I realized that The Book of Phoenix is a mother fucking super hero story, probably the best one I have ever read.
Though Phoenix feels herself as a villain, she is a gen-modified, super-powered badass to rival Superman and all the rest of those dudes in tights. Except Phoenix is a black women in either a heat-resistant white dress (so her clothes don’t burn off of her body) or a burka (so she can hide the wings she inevitably sprouts) filled with righteous anger and set on freeing every gen-modified speciMen trapped in one of the seven towers of a morally dubious corporation.
Though Phoenix sees herself more as villain than hero as she kills more and more people in order to free the speciMen, Seven, a black man who got his powers and wings from who the fuck knows where, is described explicitly as being “like some New Mythology superhero” (159). A-fucking-ha! I said out loud as I read on the train. This is a super hero book! Holy shit! I like super heroes again! This perspective on Seven was what made me realize that the most important super hero here is Phoenix herself, internal conflicts be damned. All the interesting superheros are conflicted. I love this book so much.
The Book of Phoenix is a stand-alone prequel to Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death. And it both stands alone (thank pod) and offers a captivating look at the true story behind The Great Book, a Bible of sorts for the people of Who Fears Death and itself another layer of commentary on the pitfalls of storytelling. Delicious. Okorafor is quickly cementing herself as one of my favorite authors. Go Nnedi go!
EXTRA CREDIT QUIZ QUESTION: Which cover is your favorite? US on the left, UK on the right. Though they are rather similar, I think I prefer the UK. You?
Where I got it: Sent by the publisher for review