Compelling characters, a rich and imaginative setting, an enjoyable and adventurous plot—finding any one of these is rare enough, and when you get all three, it's a slam dunk. Zahrah the Windseeker is a most impressive debut from newcomer Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, combining as it does an engaging, empathetic young protagonist, a rousing jungle adventure, and the weirdest fantasy world this side of The Neverending Story. In the Ooni Kingdom, technology is based on plant life: computers and other tools are grown, as are buildings, bridges, and almost anything else a human civilization could possibly need.
This lush setting contrasts sharply, however, with the society which inhabits it. It is a constrained, fashion-minded culture, where to call something "civilized" is to pay the ultimate compliment. In this world, Zahrah, whose wild hair includes actual vegetal vines called dadalocks, is a misfit: her society lives in this world, but unlike her, is evidently not of it. The Ooni Kingdom's cities and towns are surrounded by the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, a riotously lush place where even the plants have intelligence and from which human travelers return altered at the genetic level—if they return at all.
Zahrah, along with her closest friend Dari, of course cannot stay away, particularly when, with the onset of puberty, Zahrah manifests a rare and wonderful gift that she can reveal to no one else. Their curiosity leads them first to the local library, then within the borders of the Jungle itself. But the Forbidden Greeny Jungle is forbidden for a host of excellent reasons that make the jungles of Earth look like English gardens by comparison—it bites back, catalyzing Zahrah's quest into its very heart.
Although Zahrah the Windseeker is structured like a standard quest, this allows Okorafor-Mbachu to do some wonderfully inventive things with both her characters and her setting. Her Jungle is a dangerous place, but a marvelous one, too, and even as readers are chewing their nails over the challenges Zahrah faces, more than a few will wish they could visit the Forbidden Greeny Jungle themselves. A theme of embracing the unknown in both the outside world and in oneself emerges, as Zahrah's supports and tools are stripped away one by one—even the guidebook she and Dari borrow from the library.
Okorafor-Mbachu's story and the world which it inhabits exist in the increasingly broad territory between science fiction and fantasy. Although the Ooni Kingdom civilization, and to an extent the Jungle as well, are described in a technical way, when given the option between materialistic rigor and fantastic flights of imagination, Okorafor-Mbachu always opts for the latter. This makes the setting of Zahrah the Windseeker feel simultaneously concrete and wildly inventive, as though a Jungle like this could exist somewhere on Earth (Earth is even mentioned a time or two, as a mythical, not-quite-real place), in a place too remote and hostile to human life to reach. Mangoes, horses, and poisonous plants exist side by side with telepathic panthers, talking trees, and obnoxious quantum frogs, and late in her journey Zahrah meets a race of sentient beings that make one think of how the Ewoks might have looked if George Lucas hadn't taken the easy out by making them ridiculously cute. Explicitly informed by the natural and cultural milieux of West Africa, the Ooni Kingdom and its surroundings are both like Earth, and not.
Zahrah the Windseeker is aimed at the YA audience, but adult readers will probably enjoy it as well. The adult characters, including the parents of Zahrah and Dari, a sympathetic librarian, and the mysterious Nsibidi, a vendor in the ominously-named Dark Market who seems to know a great deal about Zahrah, are realistic in their concern for the main characters and their reactions to Zahrah and Dari's actions and experiences. Some of them show how not quite fitting in can be a quality of leadership, as with community leader Papa Grip, who mentors Zahrah and has a fondness for bright pink caftans. But, as with all of the best YA fiction, there comes a time when its young protagonist is forced to act on her own, and it's here, literally, that Zahrah the Windseeker takes flight.
Genevieve Williams is a freelance writer, an academic librarian, and a Clarion West graduate. She lives in Seattle.