Why you should care
Sometimes the best SFF comes from countries you may not yet be familiar with.
I grew up on speculative fiction from all over the world, from Africa to the U.K. to America, and this fed into my love of and desire to write in this genre. What’s particularly exciting for me is to see an ever-growing set of excellent African SFF stories. From the HBO-optioned Who Fears Death to the launch of the African speculative magazine Omenana, there is much to choose from these days. These five have intrigued me so far.
Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o
This critical work of satire was originally written in the Gikuyu language, while its author served prison time in Kenya as a prisoner of conscience. It is the story of a dictator, in the fictitious country of Aburiria, who engineers one hubristic plan after another while sycophants buzz about him. Kamiti, a traditional healer and the main character, proves to be the voice of sanity. Still, Ngũgĩ manages to squeeze a love story in there too. The novel stands out for its surrealistic hyperbole and bold experimentation. The cadence of Gikuyu can still be felt in its English translation, with an emphasis on orality and theatricality.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature in 2011, this work of fantasy noir tells of Zinzi December, journalist-turned-scammer who has been “animalled”: To atone the guilt of her brother’s death, she is assigned an animal to protect at all times — and if it dies, she dies. However Zinzi’s sloth gifts her the magical ability to find lost possessions, and she is hired by some ne’er-do-wells to find a missing teenager. With great skill, Beukes takes the reader on a jolly ride through the noise, smells, colors and energy of the bad and beautiful world of Johannesburg.
What Sunny Saw in the Flames (Akata Witch #1) by Nnedi Okorafor
I initially purchased this young adult title for my teenage brother, but was compelled to first read it myself. It follows 13-year-old Sunny, who discovers that she can see into the future. After unearthing an exciting realm with a quartet of equally gifted friends, Sunny et al. set out to save it from a criminal who hunts children with special powers (she’s also an albino — when last did you find an African title with an albino as protagonist?). Okorafor’s other female protagonists are known for their fierceness, and Sunny is no exception. The book is published as Akata Witch in the U.S. and U.K., but under this alternative title by Cassava Republic.
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
In this near-future science-fiction thriller, the Western Nigerian city of Rosewater struggles with the aftereffects of an alien invasion on the populace. Kaaro, the government-employed antihero with psychic abilities, struggles to navigate this new world and its twisted rules. Thompson’s inventive and creepy invasion by symbiosis has been heralded as revolutionary among SFF enthusiasts. Little wonder it nabbed the inaugural Nommo [Ilube] Award for best novel in 2017.
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
This is the first African title I’ve ever had to borrow, read and return, before planning my own purchase. Because it’s that good. You might call it mythical realism or historical fiction, but Kintu really defies classification. Kintu Kidda, in 1750, sets out on a journey to pledge allegiance to Buganda Kingdom’s new leader, and unleashes a plague on his family for generations. The story’s brilliance and Makumbi’s narrative style are why this book is popularly being described as the great Ugandan novel you didn’t know you were waiting for.