The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okarafor. New York, NY : DAW Books, Inc. 2015. 232 pp.
Imagine being two years old and looking like you’re 40. Imagine spending all of your two years of life inside a tower, where you were conceived, grown and birthed to be a speciMen – an accelerated human with powers you have yet to fully awaken to. Now imagine finding love, then having that love taken away, dead by his own hand. This is the world of Phoenix at the start of her awakening.
The Book of Phoenix is a story inside a story. In a future world of deserts and superstition, and old man named Sunuteel makes a trek and stumbles across a cave full of computers. Finding a still functional audio file, Sunuteel accesses a memory extract entitled The Book of Phoenix. Intrigued, he starts to listen, and the reader is immersed in Phoenix’s story.
In Phoenix’s day, the world was dominated by technological marvels. SpeciMen were housed in towers all over the world – genetic experiments, technologically enhanced humans, and humans with alien biology were all studied and controlled by the Big Eye. Society was happy with this arrangement as everyone benefitted from what was learned. All was well, until Phoenix awakened from complacency and saw Tower 7 for what it was – her prison.
Phoenix had been content with reading eBooks and running on her treadmill. When the buildup of heat inside her body and the luminous glowing of her skin started, the Big Eye put her in a special room and measured how hot she would get. Through the pain and the smell of burning flesh, Phoenix takes refuge in a story told by her doctor, Bumi. But when they send Bumi to tell her that Saeed was dead, Phoenix cannot contain her emotion. Saeed’s alteration had made it so that eating food was impossible – he was designed to eat rubble and concrete – and he had taken a bite of an apple he had asked Phoenix to give him. Her grief triggers a rising heat, which Bumi and the Big Eye are careful to contain.
Yet Phoenix cannot be contained forever, and with the help of another speciMen friend she escapes the tower, freeing speciMen and destroying the tower that was her home.
Phoenix’s awakening and subsequent journey bring her to Africa, across the ocean from the rubble of Tower 7 (which is only the first tower she destroys). As she learns more about her unique self and her origins, she grows in her resolve to free all the speciMen from the Big Eye.
At first, all goes well as Phoenix reconnects with her friends from Tower 7 and discovers her powers. The Big Eye are not content to let their speciMen go however, and after they kill her new love, Phoenix returns to the land of Tower 7, apparently back under control.
Yet how can anyone control the sun?
Nnedi Okorafor writes a type of magical realism that feels like myth and reads like a superhero story with heart. Phoenix is a relatable character, and her eventual place in the creation story of Sunuteel’s world makes knowing her story all the more poignant. Highly recommended for teens or adults who enjoy stories involving superheroes while also appreciating the story of loneliness and isolation that being different can bring.
Deana Cunningham is the Associate Director of Operations at the Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org