During this last week of black history month (and all year round, for that matter), we’re celebrating some of our favorite recent sci-fi and fantasy novels that explore worlds inspired by African nations and traditions, past, present and future.
By taking inspiration from the lands, peoples, folklores, and varied histories of Africa, these writers reveal new vistas of the imagination to the Western world. It’s not just about setting; it’s about exploring new and varied ways to approach imaginative fiction.
Each of these works is both an extraordinarily accomplished work of SFF, and something utterly unique. What unites them is Africa itself—sometimes real, sometimes imagined—as a base marker within their genetic makeup. It’s a perspective that still feels revelatory to readers used to the European-inspired fantasy that has historically dominated the genre space.
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
There’s been a recent international boom in literature of all genres from Nigeria, as a new generation of writers has joined with publishers eager to translate works for a global audience. At the same time, we’re seeing some of our most impressive science-fiction set in and around the country, lead by Naijamerican superstar Nnedi Okorafor. Her novels Akata Witch and Lagoon, both set near Lagos, are absolutely worth reading, but the Binti trilogy is her most impressive accomplishment to date. The three novellas (now collected together) together tell the story of a young Himba woman who defies her family to join a prestigious intergalactic university, in the process becoming something other when she communicates with and comes to understand the murderous and very alien Meduse. (For more Afrofuturist sci-fi from Okorafor, pick up her recent Marvel comics run, Suri: The Search for Black Panther, collected in trade paperback in May).
Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
On the surface, this is a detective noir involving a psychic government agent and a mysterious alien structure that appears in a remote part of Nigeria in the near future. But then, Kaaro, the agent tasked with interrogating subversives and potential public enemies, is eventually pushed too far, having grown uncomfortable with his role as an operative of a government that’s using the alien structure as both a tourist attraction and a means to consolidate power, and it becomes something far more complex. Thompson crafts a believable near-future Nigeria in which the scars of colonialism are fading but ever-present, and offers hope for the future not via technology but through (very) reluctant heroes like Kaaro. A sequel is forthcoming next month.
The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter
Inspired by the history and legends of the Xhosa of southern Africa and the writer’s own ancestry, Winter’s epic debut (available now in ebook and out in hardcover this summer) introduces a gritty fantasy landscape in which the Omehi people have been fighting a war for almost two centuries. An unshakeable caste system is reinforced by existence of gifted individuals: one in two thousand women has the power to call down dragons, while one in a hundred men can transform himself into an nigh-unstoppable killing machine. Most other people are just fodder: soldiers with little reason to hope for anything other than a good death. Tau is one of these—a nobody whose only goal is to get injured just badly enough that he’ll be allowed to sit out the fighting and settle down. Instead, a betrayal leads to the deaths of those closest to him, and Tau promises to do whatever it takes to become the kind of person capable of exacting revenge.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
The year is young, but James’ lyrical, bloody, deeply human fantasy is already on track to be one of the year’s best and most buzzworthy works of fantasy. It introduces Tracker (his only name), a pragmatically ruthless but not entirely amoral hunter for hire. When he’s paid to find a long-missing child, we set out with him and his band of mercenaries on a tour through a lush vision of fantasy land inspired by pan-African and pre-colonial history, myth, and trauma. The landscape is beautiful and unforgiving, while the characters are earthy, complex, and unapologetically queer.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Demane is a demigod, descended from the deities who abandoned our realm. On Earth, he serves as second-in-command of a mercenary caravan lead by a man known only as the Captain, with whom Demane shares a rough and deeply passionate relationship. In their path lies an undead horror, ultimately forcing Demane to choose between humanity and godhood as a means of saving his companions. Wilson’s unconventional sword-and-sorcery novella imagines a pseudo-historical West and Northern Africa dotted with great kingdoms, and tells the story of those who live their lives on the outside. Demane’s gripping world is brutal and fascinating, and in flowering, sometimes deliberately anachronistic prose, Wilson’s novella explores notions of masculinity in its many forms. A standalone follow-up set in the same world, A Taste of Honey, is a softer but similarly impressive achievement.
Lost Gods, by Micah Yongo
The debut of UK-based Micah Yongo, Lost Gods introduces Neythan, a teenager about to graduate along with his friends. The first twist? This is a school for assassins, and Neythan and company are about to become full-fledged members of the lethal Shedaím brotherhood. Before long, Neythan is betrayed; framed for the murder of his best friend, he escapes capture and sets out to find the real killer, pursuing him through an imaginative landscape influenced by pan-African folklore and history. Yongo’s debut shines most brightly in its creation of a unique point-of-view character: Neythan is vulnerable and naive in many ways, learning much alongside us about the world and the secretive organization he thought he understood—yet he’s also a trained killer, and so hardly a babe in the woods. The followup, Pale Kings, arrives in July.
This list includes a few of our recent favorites. What new and classic African-inspired SFF would you recommend?