Binti: The Night Masquerade
By Nnedi Okorafor
Reviewed By Samantha Dolan.
When a series is a Hugo and Nebula award winner, expectations are set. When the blurbs are written by Neil Gaiman, Veronica Roth and juggernaut Ursula K. LeGuin, your interest is well and truly piqued. And when you quit trying to pronounce the authors name even in your own head, you’re ready for the journey that is Binti. You’ll quickly realise that there’s no point in trying to impose your own understanding of any world on this one because as quickly as you make a decision, Okorafor will knock it from your grasp.
Lets deal with the obvious first. Science Fiction is not often seen as the province of BAME people. And Nnedi Okorafor hasn’t attempted to hide her Nigerian heritage at all. Binti is pictured proudly with her Himba roots on display on the cover of each of these books. So what does that tell us about what we’re about to read? Firstly, that you’re going to get a masterclass in what it feels like to be other. For some people, it’ll be your first taste of what it could mean to be third culture kid. But beyond that, the skill of people like Okorafor and N.K Jemisin is that the ethnicity of their protagonists is not the story they’re trying to tell. Ethnicity is a background colour, a lens through which the reader can experience the world. For some, that lens will be sharper than a magnifying glass, for others, beer goggles. But the world, no, universe that Binti inhabits is so exquisitely detailed, so fantastical in its scope, that you can’t help but be swept along with it.
The trilogy begins with the juxtaposition of a technological advancement and Himba tradition. Binti is a teenage girl who is going against the fundamental teachings of her people. The Himba retreat within, within their village and within themselves, but Binit has been accepted to the prestigious Oomza University. She was leaving, to find out what her potential really was, in the wee small hours of the morning, against the advice and blessing of everyone she had ever known. In those first moments, Binti is told by the equivalent of the Customs agent that she was the pride of her people. But Binti knew better.
This first instalment takes place almost entirely on a living ship called the Third Fish which is carrying a host of other students and professors to Oozma. Binti might be the only Himba on the ship but she’s not rejected. She’s a curiosity but she speaks the same mathematical language as the other students. What she can do, called ‘treeing’, with formulas induces meditative states that allow the mind to experience the freedom it needs to solve problems. Binti is also a harmoniser, like her father, and she uses her treeing ability to reconcile differences in the universe. This ability it central to Binti and the story that follows.
The other central tenant is war, an interplanetary war between the Khoush (the closest to humans we could define) and the Meduse, who in my head are giant floating jellyfish though I’m embarrassed to reduce them to so few words. On the journey to the university, Third Fish is attacked by the Meduse and everyone is killed bar Binti, who is saved by an artefact she’d found in the desert near her home. I’ve barely scratched the surface of a story that lasts about 84 pages. This story is lean, tight and compelling and slides confidently into Home.
Biniti took our protagonist out into the stars and the second instalment is not subtly named. We follow Binti and her Meduse partner Okuw back to Earth. After a year at the university, making otjize (the clay that gives the Himba people their beautiful reddened skin tone) from alien clay, Binti feels the pull of the home to partake in a pilgrimage. It’s fascinating to watch Binti struggle with her identity. At the university, it’s so clear that’s where she’s supposed to be. And yet her upward blossoming is also propelling her roots to tunnel as deep into her traditions as possible. She isn’t sure of the welcome she’ll receive, especially with the changes that have happened to her, but she can’t ignore the call. A pregnant Third Fish happens to be the ship taking her home and Binti has to struggle with the grief and trauma of what happened the first time. The strongest part here for me was watching Binti employ all the tools of her grief counselling. Sometimes it worked, sometimes she spiralled into a panic. I’m sure anyone with first hand knowledge of dealing with grief would recognise the cycle. The other part Home that really resonated was when Binti, who was welcomed by her family at the port, chose to wear a dress she’d found at university down into the kitchen and she’s effectively heckled for looking ridiculous. It brought back memories for me of being heckled by my aunts at family parties. Or think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. People with large families will know that however big or fancy you get, they’ll always be there to remind you of your place. But unbeknownst to Binti, her home is not just the Root, her ancestral family home, but amongst a people she’s never seen as anything other than savages.
Through Home and into The Night Masquerade, the reader joins Binti as she assimilates all she was into who she is and who she could become. It’s not an easy journey and the first 50 pages of the third instalment is quite disorientating to read, intentionally so. Our harmonizer is described as ‘broken’ because she’s brought discord with her. The Khoush and Meduse are back to the brink of war and it’s happening on her land. She’s told repeatedly that it was only a matter of time but who she is, the life she’s trying to craft for herself, has given an opening to free the very worst in both sides. Intentionally or not, she had brought doom with her and Binti takes it upon herself to live up to her potential and solve the issue. And for a moment, it looks like she’s done it and it’s a little disappointing from a reader’s perspective. But then you realise that there’s at least a third of the book left to go and Okorafor isn’t done knocking you out.
I really enjoyed this series. There isn’t an extraneous page in the lot. The entire story has been pared right down to the essentials and in doing so, the world building proved to at least double the size. The three books only just break the 400 page mark. That’s not even part one for George R.R. Martin. And yet there’s no doubting the development of the characters. Binti evolves again and again in a very external way but so do all young (and old) adults as we figure out who we are and who we want to be. And I enjoy an author who doesn’t feel the need to boil things down the lowest common denominator. Though if there is any flabbiness in these stories, it is in the repetition of the Himba traditions, the Meduse stance on honour, how Binti ‘trees’. It’s more in the Night Masquerade because it’s 3 years after the release of the first book but I don’t think the story would have suffered for allowing the reader to just recall those details. The Night Masquerade as a story line is also a little loose. It’s a ‘twist’ of the M. Night Shyamalan ilk and it doesn’t massively add anything to the story. But those are tiny niggles in a transformative series. The Binti trilogy sings proudly across the cosmos and I for one am very keen to read anything else this author chooses to pen.