VITA NOSTRA, a dark work of speculative fantasy penned by a Ukrainian husband and wife duo, where magic is intensely philosophical and transforms you physically and mentally the more you learn.
Even though I would classify AKATA WITCH as dark academia, I like that it solidly rejects that classist European boarding school structure. Sunny first learns of her abilities when she sees the end of the world in a candle frame. Her friend, Orlu, takes her to his friend, Chichi, who recognizes the magic in her and takes her to their mentor, who helps her unleash her powers and start on her training journey.
Sunny is albino, and there are a lot of superstitions about albinism being magical in Africa, so I thought that was a really interesting choice for the author to make-- especially since we see how Sunny is discriminated against and rejected by her peers for being different and sounding different and looking different, since she has an American accent from being brought up in the U.S. One thing I really liked about this magic system is that innate ability is tied to the physical, usually in some sort of equal or opposite measure. So people who are physically disabled might be able to shapeshift, and people who are blind can have the Sight. This idea of compensating people for their physical "flaws" and making it part of their power was really cool.
The magic system is also really interesting. I liked how their juju knives sort of "choose" them (yes, like Harry Potter). Here, that covenant feels more sacred though, since Sunny bonds with her knife with blood. I like how the magical money works in this world too (chittim). They receive chittim for gaining knowledge-- it literally falls from the sky-- so when they try out a new spell, fix a problem, or even learn something new about themselves, they are rewarded with this magic money that can be used to buy magical goods in magical shops. Like Harry Potter, there is also a magical world and a mundane world. They call themselves "Leopard" people and people without magic are called "Lambs" and the two worlds are supposed to be separate but obviously, there are slip-ups, and there are people in charge who dole out punishments for offenses.
The main source of conflict comes from an evil man named Black Hat Otokoto who is using children for dark magic. Some people will probably compare him to Voldemort but honestly, he reminded me more of Rose the Hat from Doctor Sleep, what with the children sacrifices and the hat and all that. I think he's a really sinister villain and he really adds a real sense of stakes to the book, which is so much darker than any other magical children fantasy book I've read. Messing up a spell can lead to death, and magic can also conjure up spirits and gods, so it's really important not to go beyond one's level or act with malice, especially since magic can turn around and kill the person who performs the spell.
One thing I also really liked is how we are introduced to the world of Leopard people alongside Sunny through excerpts from her guide book, "Fast Facts for Free Agents," and how it's also acknowledged to be an imperfect work that has classist, sexist, and racist undertones. There's a discussion about how knowledge doesn't always lead to wisdom and how motive has to be analyzed when considering a source, which I thought was a really refreshing take from the "read this book and take it at complete face value" dialogues that usually emerge from books of this type.
AKATA WITCH was really fun and really unusual and I loved the Nigerian setting. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha are pretty young teens (13/14) but the book doesn't feel young, and I'm not sure I'd necessarily categorize this book as middle grade because the characters and the concepts feel like they're being targeted at an older audience. It's immersive and epic in scope, and I managed to burn through it in just a couple days because I was having such a good time. I really can't wait to read further into the series. I hope we get to see these characters grow up as they come into themselves.
4.5 out of 5 stars