The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Phoenix is a biologically altered human.  She lives in Tower 7 in Manhattan, where her creators – government scientists referred to as the “Big Eye” – monitor her and the other “speciMen”.  Born just two years before the events taking place in the novel, she has the mind and body of a fully grown woman.

She spends her time reading voraciously, and tentatively exploring a relationship (or, as much of a relationship as the Big Eye will allow) with fellow speciMen Saeed.  Apart from that, she has very little contact with anyone else, and has never left the tower.  She is content.  Until Saeed sees something so terrible that he decides to take his own life.  And this causes Phoenix to start questioning the circumstances that she has so naively accepted as normal, and sets off on a path that will have far-reaching consequences.

I’ve wanted to read The Book of Phoenix since it was first published in 2015, and so I was thrilled to be sent a copy to review ahead of its paperback release later this month.  This is a novel that combines some of my favourite themes – the superhuman character and the potential apocalypse.  It should have been right up my street.  Unfortunately, it just didn’t do it for me.

This is partly because I didn’t really warm to Phoenix as a character – she is extremely naïve, and she constantly questions whether she is good or evil.  She sees herself as a villain, or a terrorist.  Yet the Big Eye are presented as being so inherently evil that there is no doubt that she is one of the good guys.  I think that I would have enjoyed some ambiguity in this novel.  I don’t particularly like novels which are so black and white, and I think that if the two sides had been more ambiguous, if the reader could question which side was good, then it would have made for a more interesting, thought-provoking read.

Additionally, I didn’t really like Seven, a mysterious being who appears every so often to give Phoenix advice.  I understand his role as something of a guardian angel, but at one point he helps Phoenix out of a somewhat sticky situation by showing her a new ability.  This came across as a ‘deus ex machina’, and it annoyed me.

Human beings make terrible gods.

In some ways The Book of Phoenix reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In both, we have scientists creating beings that they cannot control, with dire consequences.  Okorafor tackles this issue on a far wider scale than Shelley did (the world has changed significantly since 1818), but there is a common theme between them.  I think that both successfully raise the point that just because we can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.

There are some interesting ideas here – and I did enjoy parts of the novel.  The framing story – which sees an elderly gentlemen come across Phoenix’s tale some 200 years after the events portrayed in the novel – was brilliantly done, for example, but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would.

The Book of Phoenix will be published in paperback on 11 February – many thanks to Jenni Leech at Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy for review.

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