Final Rating: Four and a half cups of bold, adventurous tea
I first learned of Binti when its breathtaking cover art graced my Twitter timeline, and from then on I couldn’t wait for my chance to grab a copy. (Seriously, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate this art for a moment. It was easily my favorite cover of any book in 2015 and to be honest I haven’t seen anything since that really matches it.) And much to my delight, the story within was just as imaginative and exciting as I had hoped.
With only 96 pages, Binti was a bit shorter than I’d expected, but still quite satisfying. I was invested in the protagonist, Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kapka of Namib, immediately as she does one of the scariest and most difficult things there is in the world: Pursuing the needs of your true self, even if that means going against the wishes of your family and friends. Binti literally leaves behind her entire world to fulfill her goals, and it’s a harrowing journey to say the least. Things take a very frightening and unexpected turn partway through, and I truly appreciated a more honest look at how someone young and intelligent deals with sudden trauma, rather than the heavy focus on the initial adrenaline burst of fear. Binti has moments when she is scared, certainly; she also has moments where she’s bored, exhausted, hysterical, sarcastic, and even at peace with her own death. It felt far more genuine than a lot of stuff I’ve read before, but then Binti herself feels very genuine. She’s a human being, not just a collection of straight lines mapping out to easily defined feelings. Better still, her tenacity and intelligence is respected by the narrative itself, as the characters around her change with her and are not just simple cardboard cutouts for her to struggle against.
The book does get a little exposition-y in spots, but the information being conveyed is both interesting and highly relevant to the story at hand, so I didn’t mind it. And it was so refreshing to see a difficult, fraught situation being solved not by combat or by loud explosions, but by conversations. There is no less tension or worry on the part of the reader for this, by the way. I felt just as anxious to see the outcome of these discussions as I would a grandiose space-battle or deadly duel. But in my opinion, too many authors get stuck in the habit of having every climax of every conflict be an enormous clash of titans, when in point of fact sometimes the real work happens with words. And honestly, it was so nice to read something that took these conversations (and the people having them) seriously instead of it being meaningless flavor-text. As I was reading, I realized I expected them to go catastrophically wrong, not because the characters having them were at fault, but because that’s just what I’m used to seeing. And you know what? It was pretty great to be proven wrong.
Another thing I enjoyed was how unapologetically skilled Binti is. Way too many authors shy away from writing female characters who are just really amazing at what they do, possibly out of fear as being labelled a “Mary Sue” or whatever. This is total garbage when male characters get to be as skilled and amazing as they want to be and no one bats an eye. Put bluntly, Binti knows her shit, and she’s not shy about it. She has doubts sometimes, as everyone does, but it was really nice to read a story that wasn’t constantly trying to justify how smart and driven Binti is. That’s just who she is, as a young woman. No apologies needed.
I was also greatly moved by the artful take on higher mathematics and how they flowed in and out of the story (and Binti’s persona), touching and effecting every part of it. Too many folks–myself included–get bogged down in the cultural emphasis on mathematics and science being cold, “rational” pursuits with no room for emotional investment or beauty. This is kind of silly when you think about it, since math really does touch every part of our lives whether we see it or not. Equally moving, I felt, was the importance placed on Binti’s spirituality and the traditions of the Himba people; there are times when Binti struggles with these beliefs, but it’s an internal matter, and something she takes very seriously. It’s not an afterthought, or something that’s used as window-dressing; it’s also not something that other characters get to define for her. It’s hers, and that’s as it should be.
In short, my only complaint about Binti is that I miss its world and its characters! I would have loved to see more of them, and I hope that as we speak, Binti is off somewhere in the cosmos, happily elbow-deep in the inner workings of the universe. Meanwhile, I’m truly excited to explore the rest of Nnedi Okorafor’s work, and I can’t recommend Binti highly enough.