I didn’t read this one immediately after downloading it, so when the novel didn’t initially click for me, I blamed myself for forgetting that the main character was 12. I had been thinking of it as a YA novel, but with the ages being around 12, it isn’t quite YA, which of course leads to slightly misaligned expectations. “Oh,” I thought, “when they meant it’s like Harry Potter, they didn’t just mean magic, they meant age-wise, too.” However, when the novel continued to not quite work for me, I remembered that I liked the Percy Jackson novels and the Harry Potter novels, even if the first few were a bit young, so it wasn’t just about the audience it was written for; something about this novel didn’t work for me.
Most of the other reviews talk about the amazing world building in this novel, and I am not even sure I entirely agree with that. There are a lot of interesting details in how magic manifests and the magic using community but it also felt rushed in how everything was introduced. Sometimes I didn’t even appreciate everything since it felt like the novel was just jumping from one piece of knowledge to another. People with magic are referred to as Leopard people and those without are Lambs. Leopards earn chittim, a type of currency, whenever they learn something. As a result, knowledge is highly respected, while the community looks down on those interested in power and material acquisition, seeing them as signs of potential corruption.
Mostly, I disliked the characters. Their characterization and moods seemed to change from paragraph to paragraph, two of them were very entitled and condescending, and they felt oddly whiny about some things. Sunny, the main character, is a 12 year old albino girl born of Nigerian parents in the United States who has been living in Nigeria since she was 9. Orlu is one of her classmates at her regular school, quiet and thoughtful, and one of the only ones to defend her (the novel originally refers to her ex-friends a few times but never really gets further into the shifting middle school politics beyond introducing her arch-nemesis so it seemed like a pointless detail). Orlu introduces her to Chichi who doesn’t go to their school but is incredibly intelligent, and goes back and forth between being sweet and helpful (especially towards Sunny during her initial introductions to magic) and a total brat with no respect for others. Finally, Sasha rounds out the four main characters, an African American teen sent to Nigeria for safety and discipline after acting up at his school in Chicago – obviously not the best place for a black teen boy to act up. Chichi and Orlu bring Sunny to their Leopard people community so their teacher can test her for magical abilities, and she of course passes. Once Sunny knows that she has abilities, she (and the reader) is exposed to a whole new world. As a person that wasn’t raised by magical people she is known as a free agent though everyone soon starts hinting to her about her grandmother. Chichi, Orlu and Sunny are placed in a class with Sasha to learn magical skills, and as a group of four with certain characteristics and backgrounds, they make up a coven.
While all of this is happening, there is a looming threat throughout the novel that never feels well enough developed to seem like much of a concern. A villain referred to as Black Hat is stealing and killing and/or mutilating children. Additionally, Sunny had a vision in a candle of the world ending but both of those things feel completely unrelated to the rest of the novel until the very end. Sunny and her coven go on minor quests to meet the elders and get paired with mentors, and as the novel goes on, I just found myself struggling to keep reading, disliking the characters more and more. Rather than being an easy read, this quickly became a chore to finish. Sasha and Chichi often act like assholes who are better than everything and everyone. They also all have ridiculous mood swings, going from mad to the happiest ever to rude. To me, it felt like lack of consistency. Or is this really what 12 year olds are like? Because I feel like I was sulky enough as a kid to keep one emotion/mood for more than five minutes at a time.
One outing involves a large gathering of other magical Leopard people from around the area with various events to fill the day, including a soccer game, a fight to the death, and a dance party with a very bad ending. Considering that the weekend ended on a rather sobering note, I was still surprised when Sunny described it as the best weekend ever. I mean I get the excitement, but that answer coming five minutes after the previous event just made me think they all had selective memory. Especially when considering that these are supposed to be children in a community that values knowledge and thoughtfulness, “I really enjoyed the weekend until …,” might have been a reasonable answer.
Also, I honestly don’t know if the novel knew which age it wanted to be aimed at. On the one hand, Sunny is 12 and rather innocent, but then the elders (the adults in this novel aren’t any better than the children – “you acted up, I don’t think I will mentor you” – don’t you think that is exactly who might need a mentor?) talk about the presence of lust among the coven as a good thing. At one point, one of the characters forces another character into a dress that emphasizes her breasts. I mean I am not trying to act innocent about what twelve year olds are up to but I wouldn’t expect those types of remarks in a Percy Jackson novel, and would expect them in a novel about fifteen or sixteen year olds.
Some quotes that irritated me:
“Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to be a female,” Sunny thought. – It was in response to other girls fawning over Sasha but since it is literally a few paragraphs after Sunny being all feminist and wondering why girls should be held to a higher standard, it was frustrating. Is it a realistic presentation of snap judgments girls make when they still consider comments like, “you aren’t like other girls” a compliment? Yes. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t want better from the protagonists of a novel, or at least a follow up thought of, “that’s not fair.”
“You shouldn’t be forced to treat anything well,” Sasha said, giving Orlu an annoyed look. “It should be a choice.” – This was when they were discussing a magical pet wasp. Obviously, I understand that the idea of being nice to people is a lot more complicated, especially if those people make someone uncomfortable, feel threatened etc. but in the context of this conversation, it bugged me. You shouldn’t have to be forced to treat things smaller and less powerful than you well, that should be your default approach until proven otherwise.
I wish I had liked this novel more since it was a different perspective and adds to the diversity of the middle school/YA novels available in the US but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I am being a bit hard on the book since I wasn’t the target audience but despite having some good elements and building blocks, it didn’t come together to create a magical story for me. If I had connected more with the characters, I might have been more drawn in, and would have felt more like Black Hat was a scary villain but I never lost myself in the story and kept viewing it from a distance, not getting emotionally involved or invested. Even the quotes that irritated me I probably would have easily shrugged off if the rest of the book had been working for me and I liked the characters, especially since the novel portrays Nigeria as more casually sexist than is the accustomed norm in the US. Since the characters already annoyed me, it was simply another thing to hold against them.