Binti is a novella starting a series about a young woman leaving her home in Africa to travel to a distant world – Oomza University. She is the first of her people – the Himba – to leave their homelands but she is an incredibly gifted harmoniser who even as a teenager is capable of building complex instruments called astrolabes. Basically she is gifted at the complex and advanced mathematics that are used to propel this future society.
The book introduces intriguing concepts such as living ships who grow complex internal chambers and slough off their carapace as they descend through the atmosphere, a world based around mathematical and predictive readings of people. And at the heart of this is the detail of the Himba people and their culture – how they feel isolated and different but that is a core of their identity. The red clay – Otjize – they use to cover their skin and hair being a strong identifying factor.
All of that is good world building, but the problem is that this is a novella and when we hit the core of the action there is not enough room or detail to make it as compelling as it should be. Enemies attack the ship heading to the university, Binti is left alone having to deal with these jellyfish-like aliens and having to find a way to communicate and prevent a war escalating through misunderstanding. Even when they arrive at their destination the resolution seems simplistic and feels hurried “oh it was all a mistake, sorry we maimed your leader, and we’ll forgive you killing hundreds of people”.
So in conclusion, there’s a good idea here and I may read the sequels to see it expanded on. But this novella falls short because there isn’t enough space to care about these characters – in particular no human character other than Binti is in focus so their deaths feel abstract and you don’t really care enough. Leaving the world building less detailed is a good approach, that makes it intriguing, but if I had seen Binti interact more with the people on the ship I think that would have helped make the events and Binti’s reactions meaningful.