Editor’s note: BINTI was originally published in three separate novellas but has recently been released in a complete trilogy. We’ve combined all of our new and previous BINTI reviews in this post.
As Binti, a mathematically brilliant, 16 year old member of the African Himba tribe, sneaks away from her home in the dead of night, I felt almost as much anticipation as Binti herself. Binti has decided, against massive family pressure, to accept a full-ride scholarship to the renowned Oomza University on a planet named ― wait for it ― Oomza Uni. (Perhaps the university sprawls across the entire planet? Certainly it covers several cities many miles apart.) Himba tribe members are technically advanced but socially isolated from other people, and Binti’s breaking away from her tribe evidences her courage, but leaves her isolated, an outsider.
On the spaceship, Binti has found several like-minded friends among the students traveling to Oomza Uni (and even a new crush) when disaster strikes in the form of a proud, militant alien race, the large jellyfish-shaped Meduse. The Meduse massacre all of the humans on the ship except the pilot, who is necessary to their plans, and Binti, who is not, but who is mysteriously protected against attack by her edan, an ancient metal artifact that she carries with her. Binti is forced to deal with the aftermath of this catastrophe and the constant threat of death from the Meduse who are lurking outside her room. As she searches for a way to not just survive but to resolve her deep anger and distress, Binti herself grows and changes as a result.
This theme of personal growth and change continues through the second and third novellas in this collection, Binti: Home and Binti: The Night Masquerade, as well as the new short story, “Binti: Sacred Fire.” In “Sacred Fire,” Binti is dealing with the emotional aftermath of the massacre that she experienced first-hand on the spaceship, and is experiencing rage incidents and trouble developing relationships with others. She takes on an impromptu personal retreat to the desert, searching for inner peace and understanding, and finds new friendships in the process.
Binti: Home follows Binti as she leaves the university for a period to return to her home on Earth, with her Meduse friend Okwu accompanying her. Trouble awaits them there, not just from Binti’s choice to attend Oomza University rather than accept the role her family intended for her, but from Okwu’s presence. The Meduse have a long history of war with the Khoush people, and though there is currently a tentative peace treaty, Okwu’s being in their territory has inflamed emotions. Meanwhile, Binti is also having issues with her ongoing PTSD and with new revelations about her life and ancestry.
At the beginning of Binti: The Night Masquerade, Binti has just found out that her family and home are under attack and is rushing home to her family and tribe as fast as possible. The Night Masquerade deals with what she finds when she gets home, and the fall-out from all of the problems that have been building up. It’s up to Binti, with the help of her friends (including the obligatory new love interest), to try to prevent an all-out war between the Khoush and the Meduse.
The first novella, Binti, won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, I believe largely on the strength of its highly unusual minority main character (who, to be fair, is a great YA heroine) and its incorporation of current social issues. Binti is amazing and complex, with mixed motivations and emotions that she doesn’t always understand. She felt real to me, though her continual emotional outbursts and PTSD did get tiresome to read about after a while. But it was delightful learning more about her tribe’s culture, including the Himba women’s practice of covering their skin and hair with otjize, a red clay mixture ― a practice Binti follows with dedication, even when she is lightyears away from her home.
At the same time, Okorafor takes on multiple social issues like cultural insensitivity, finding connections with those who are different, and standing up for yourself against social pressure. The Himba are looked down on by the Khoush, the Arab (per Okorafor) people who are the majority, and the Himba in turn look down on the Desert People, or Zinariya, who are actually far more advanced than anyone outside of their tribe realizes. Binti’s best human friend at Oomza Uni is Haifa, a Khoush girl who was born physically male and transitioned to female at age thirteen.
Binti also contains some intriguing science fictional concepts and devices, like the astrolabe, a multi-functional mobile device, and the living spaceships, which are closely related to shrimp and can give birth to new spaceships. It’s also got a little of the “Africa power” vibe of Black Panther ― high technology hidden from the view of outsiders ― which I enjoyed. There are the bones of some good world-building here.
But, other than the unusual minority heroine and the Africa setting, the BINTI trilogy struck me as a fairly standard YA fantasy/SF novel, with many of the typical tropes. There’s the special snowflake main character who saves a world (at least part of it) despite her youth, a love interest or two, the patriarchal establishment that the main character fights against, and more.
The science fiction plot is serviceable but has several rather noticeable plot holes in it. Some examples (warning: spoilers for the first novella are in this paragraph): Binti’s edan device mysteriously poisons the Meduse, thus saving her life … and then Binti’s otjize, a mixture of clay and plant oils, just as magically heals the Meduse’s wounds and scars. No good reason is ever given for either of these key plot devices. The Meduse keep the spaceship pilot alive so that he can get them through security and land the ship on Oomza Uni, but any ship pilot worth his or her salt would refuse to cooperate, perhaps even suicide or crash the ship, to avoid a worse massacre on the planet. Forgiveness for the Meduse’s terrorist murders of hundreds of innocent people on the spaceship is quickly given, with no lasting repercussions, because … their rage was justified by a thoughtless insult given the Meduse chief, a failure to respect his culture. Really? And in The Night Masquerade, two separate, deeply emotional crises occur … and then the punches are pulled, in both cases in rather far-fetched ways. Some additional foundation-setting or foreshadowing might have helped with my ability to accept these events.
Perhaps Okorafor’s focus on Binti’s internal growth and turmoil and on social issues led her to not think through the logic of the plot as carefully as she might have. Still, for me the delightfully unique heroine and her culture and story of personal growth more than make up for the plot’s weaknesses. Just don’t think about the plot too hard.
Every now and then I simply have to accept that my response to a book is just an outlier. For whatever reason, I’ll read a book that has met pretty much universal acclaim, finish it, and think to myself, “Huh. Really?” Which was my recent experience with BINTI: The Complete Trilogy (2019) by Nnedi Okorafor, whose stories have been praised all over the place and taken home multiple awards (“Binti” received both the 2016 Hugo Award and the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novella), which is probably, based on the clear consensus, what you should probably pay more attention to. For me though, it was another case of, “really?”
The omnibus includes the novellas Binti, Binti: Home, and Binti: The Night Masquerade, as well as the short story “Binti: Sacred Fire” (between Binti and Binti: Home). In the first story, Binti, a young Himba girl leaves Earth against the will of her family and African village, to attend Oomza University. But her journey off-planet becomes a nightmare when her ship is attacked by the jelly-fish like Meduse as part of their war with the Khoush (a human people who look down upon the Himba). The Meduse kill everyone on board save Binti, thanks in large part to a mysterious artifact of ancient technology she’d found some years ago. Given the next few novellas, it’s not spoiler to say Binti not only survives to make her way to Oomza but also helps broker a truce between the Khoush and Meduse. Binti: Home shows us Binti trying to find her way at Oomza even as she deals with the trauma of her journey there. Eventually, her needs drive her back home, a journey she undertakes with the Meduse Okwu, who has become her friend and is the first Meduse on Earth. But home is never home once you leave, as Binti finds out. Even more complicating, she learns her family and her people’s history isn’t exactly what she thought. She’s also forced to face her own biases as well. Meanwhile, bringing Okwu with her turns out to be less an act of diplomacy and more the spark that lights the fire. Finally, Binti: The Night Masquerade closes out the series by both resolving some issues and opening up others.
To start with the positive, and there are a good number of those, the focus on conflicts of culture — both external and internal, the sense of outsider-ship minorities feel, power relationships between oppressed and oppressor, and the sense of colonial entitlement, are strong themes throughout. Okorafor shows some wonderful moments, such as when a Khoush touches Binti’s hair without permission to “see what it was like,” or when Binti notes she’s the only Himba on the transport shuttle or the first of her people to be accepted at Oomza, clear analogues to real life situations. Even better, Okorafor always eschews the easy path of making her main character wholly free of bias herself. Instead Binti must come face to face with her own insidious prejudice against the desert people, while her denigrated-by-the-Khoush people do their own fair share of denigrating others.
I also was taken by Okorafor’s bio-technology. She’s far from the first to pepper a science fiction tale with biologically-based spaceships and other technology (Scott Westerfeld also does an excellent job with the trope in his LEVIATHAN TRILOGY), but her level of detail and originality stands out, as does the humane warmth she ascribes to some of her creations.
Finally, on a sentence level, there are some wonderfully crafted lines throughout and Okorafor’s stylistic gifts are often at the forefront.
All that said, I found the BINTI series as a whole, and each individual story (though to varying degrees) disappointing. As a general matter, they felt far more YA than I had expected in terms of ease of events, “magical” technology that is all too convenient, direct narration that tells me more than shows me, and a character that is a little too brilliantly and easily effective. The narrative often felt choppy and abrupt, “twists” were all too predictable, some actions (or lack of actions) were too implausible (including ones that were labeled as such), and some of the drama felt artificial due to the preceding contrivances. I didn’t feel particularly engaged with characters (even Binti) or plot. Were it not for the aforementioned acclaim, I’m sure I wouldn’t have read past the first one, and it was really only out of a sense of both obligation (I received the book to review) and a grim curiosity (“There must be something stunning coming, right? Just around the corner?”) that I kept going.
As I said at the outset, I’m obviously way, way out of the general consensus on these books, so one should take my reaction in that context. But for me, while there was certainly evidence of originality, depth, and stylistic panache here, these stories just didn’t hold up.
Nnedi Okorafor describes the BINTI trilogy as “African girl leaves home. African girl comes home. African girl becomes home,” a trio of phrases I had firmly in mind while reading BINTI: The Complete Trilogy, and which served as the key (for me) to unlocking how Okorafor structured the arc of Binti’s story. I’m especially glad that I read the collected edition, with its addition of “Binti: Sacred Fire,” a short story providing a necessary glimpse into Binti’s life at Oomza Uni and her efforts to make friends. (Or, rather, her friends’ charmingly determined efforts to make her accept their presence in her life.)
Binti, the first novella, introduces us to Binti herself, whose destiny as a master harmonizer and manufacturer of futuristic astrolabes was set in motion eight years prior by her parents. Binti has other plans, being the first Himba accepted to the far-away and galactically famous Oomza University, and runs away in the small hours of the morning to see what sort of life she can craft for herself. All is relatively well on the living spaceship carrying her and the other new students to Oomza until the Meduse, a jellyfish-like species caught in a decades-long war with the human Khoush, board the ship and slaughter everyone but Binti and the pilot. It’s up to Binti to put her harmonizing skills to use and find a way to broker peace, or her life and many others will be forfeit.
Binti is tremendously clever as well as mathematically gifted, and has a powerful survival instinct, all of which will serve her well throughout these stories, though it’s plain that she still has quite a lot of room to learn and grow beyond her adolescent self. I was surprised by how quickly the conflict was resolved in this novella — I wasn’t clear on why a sixteen-year-old girl who hadn’t even attended classes yet was given the authority to resolve an issue of appropriation and disrespect that had been the catalyst of so much antagonism and loss of life. And with all of Binti’s anticipation for her studies at Oomza Uni, I initially expected to see more of her new life there, but realized as I continued reading that Okorafor is telling the story of Binti’s personal growth rather than her time on campus.
“Binti: Sacred Fire” explores Binti’s continuing struggle with post-traumatic stress as a result of what she witnessed during the Meduse attack. She’s come to think of Okwu, the first Meduse attending Oomza Uni, as a friend, but her uncertainty over its actions during the attack — and the changes inflicted upon her by the Meduse, without her consent — prevents her from fully trusting it. When Binti needed to be alone on Earth, she went out into the desert; she tries to make a similar excursion outside the university, but is accompanied by Haifa, a Khoush girl whose family nurtured her self-determination, the Bear, a hair-covered being, and Okwu, who cares more about Binti’s well-being than its gruff tone indicates. These three students see that she’s in distress, and in spending time together and communicating from the heart, Binti comes to think of them as her friends.
Throughout Binti, Okorafor does an excellent job of conveying Binti’s swirling whirlwind of complicated emotions and thoughts, from the meditative/spiritual peace she experiences while “treeing” and visualizing mathematical formulae, to her warring trust and fear of Okwu and all Meduse, to her exultation at attending a university where her skills are valued and challenged, to her intense homesickness and longing for familiar sights and sounds. Again and again, Binti focuses on her jar of otjize, without which she feels naked and exposed, and which plays an important part in her identity and self-worth. So much of Binti’s life and self are defined by tradition or the expectations of others, and the moments in which she defines herself are quite powerful, as a result.
Binti: Home picks up after Binti’s been at Oomza for about a year, and she’s starting to feel as though a trip back to Earth is in order. Her classes are going well, but she’s randomly struck by sudden and intense feelings of rage, and her efforts to understand the mysterious edan she discovered as a child aren’t progressing the way she’d like. What she needs is a traditional desert pilgrimage, one that will purge her of the corrosive anger and spiritually re-center her. Okwu comes along, as an ambassador of the Meduse, though it doesn’t ignore (and, in fact, seems to relish) the possibility that its presence might spark war with the Khoush.
Once back home, Binti discovers that her decision to attend Oomza has caused all kinds of friction between herself, her family, and the Himba community as a whole. Not only that, but there is more to Binti’s heritage and her discovery of the edan than she realized, and coming to terms with the truth forces her to re-examine her own preconceptions about other groups of marginalized people, even as a marginalized person, herself. I felt so bad for Binti, especially regarding her constant perception that she’s a disappointment to her parents mingled with her frustration at not being able to choose her own way.
How different my life would have been in my parents had just let me dance.
Binti: The Night Masquerade is the longest, and most consequential, novella in the omnibus. While Binti is in the desert, among the Enyi Zinariya, the Khoush attack her family’s ancestral home and try to kill Okwu. When Binti’s father will not give over the Meduse, the Khoush burn the home to the ground after trapping her family inside the cellar. In response to the attempt of Okwu’s life, the Meduse are sure to wage another devastating war. Binti frantically makes her way back, assisted by Mwinyi, a fellow harmonizer who can speak with animals. Even though she’s female and already ostracized by her people for attending Oomza Uni, Binti pleads with the Himba council members to help her in brokering peace once again. But all hope for success lies in her, and her abilities as a master harmonizer.
I was glad to see and learn even just a little more about her time at Uni, since it is clearly influential on who Binti is becoming and it’s the wellspring for the Himba community’s rejection of her. The core conflict at play here is emotionally consequential, but is resolved relatively easily, even considering the toll that conflict takes on her family and her people. I wasn’t fooled by a major change, correctly identifying it as a feint long before its big reveal, and the concept of the Night Masquerade — a mystical figure only seen by boys or men, and which signifies great changes ahead — was pretty easy to figure out once Binti saw it. On the other hand, the revelation of what the edan is, even though I agree with Binti that it’s “anticlimactic,” made me laugh out loud. Sometimes the most significant events in our lives are inconsequential on the universal scale, and what else can we do but laugh?
I agree that the BINTI stories were more typical-YA than I was anticipating; Okorafor writes beautifully, but some of the plot contrivances and resolutions were just too easily achieved. Binti’s emotional journey is satisfying overall, but I wanted to actually see her go to classes and meet new People so that readers could see the differences between her Earth life and her Oomza life rather than simply being told that they aren’t the same. I did enjoy seeing the times in which Binti grew or decided that she didn’t need to change, and the collection’s conclusion hit the right note for me. BINTI: The Complete Trilogy succeeds as the story of one young woman’s journey of self-discovery, and I’d happily seek out more Binti stories should Okorafor choose to tell them.
HERE ARE OUR PREVIOUS REVIEWS FOR THE INDIVIDUAL NOVELLAS:
In Binti, published by Tor.com, Nnedi Okorafor tells the story of Binti, a brave adolescent girl who is the only person from her tribe, the Himba, to ever be invited to attend Oomza Uni, the most prestigious university in the galaxy. She is a harmonizer, a skilled creator of advanced technology, but despite her tribe’s affinity for technology and innovation, they rarely leave their tribal lands. Binti sets off on her journey to Oomza Uni, knowing that her departure likely means she will be a pariah to her family and friends. What’s more, because of the Himba tradition of covering skin and hair with otjize, or red earth, she knows that she’ll likely be an outsider in her new environment.
Her journey off the planet and across the galaxy is marvelous at first. She makes friends with her new cohort and enjoys the ship, a giant space-faring crustacean with room inside for human occupants. But mid-way through their travel to Oomza, the ship is attached by the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien species with a vendetta. Binti is thrown into the middle of a violent cultural conflict and her only hope is a mysterious object she has carried with her since childhood.
I loved this book on so many levels. First, as a coming-of-age story, it was beautiful and relatable. Although not many people will have Binti’s specific experience as a Himba, almost everyone can relate to the feeling of being an outsider, and those first tentative and magical moments when you begin to connect with like-minded people who might have first seemed intimidating. Binti is a classic story: teen meets the “cool kids” and is intimidated before realizing they have something in common.
And Binti herself is brave and good-hearted; it is easy to class her with Katherine Addison’s Maia as a teen protagonist who is so likeable that it hurts when bad things happen to them. When the peace between two species is placed in Binti’s hands, she has already lost everything she’s gained so far and is at risk of losing her life. She feels frightened and like she doesn’t have what it takes to bridge the gap between the two species. But, as it turns out, she has exactly what she needs in the very items she brought from home. Her love and loyalty to her people end up being strengths that help her solve the crisis.
The Meduse were fascinating antagonists. Their non-human biology, their long-nurtured anger, their cultural differences: all contribute to the problem Binti faces, but also work to characterize these creatures as well. I found myself sympathizing with them, even as I was horrified by their actions.
I liked the sci-fi elements of Binti — the bio-organic ship, the “astrolabes” that Binti’s tribe is so good at constructing (which seems to be a smart-phone-esque device), the idea of a university accepting students from all across the galaxy to study mathematics. I also liked the fantasy elements, particularly Binti’s mysterious metallic artifact. I would love to read a whole story about the origins of that item.
But more than that, I just loved the character. And now I want more of what happens next to Binti.
I want to know more of what happens to Binti, too. She’s a great heroine who’s set in a fascinating world. I listened to the audio version of Binti which was narrated by Robin Miles. She gave a great performance and she made me totally believe in Binti.
I absolutely loved this coming-of-age tale. Binti is a thoughtful, intelligent protagonist with a clear voice throughout all of her hardships. Digging into a character like Binti is one of the reasons I read. I learned a great deal from her story and I am excited to read on in Binti: Home.
In Binti: Home (2017), the follow-up novella to her very successful novella Binti, Nnedi Okorafor takes us back to Earth, to show us Binti’s reunion with family and discovery of hidden aspects of her heritage.
After the massacre that preceded her arrival at Oomza University, Binti is struggling to relate to other students at university or even focus on the advanced mathematics coursework she was so excited about. Although she remains close to Okwu, the Meduse she befriended and vouched for after the massacre in Binti, Binti finds herself angry with the Meduse — and with life — at times. These mood swings vie against her role as harmonizer, so, in order to understand and possibly control them, she decides to visit home. Her visit, however, means facing the family she left behind and aspects of her history she hasn’t confronted. And, since Okwu decides to join her as the first Meduse to ever visit Earth, Binti must also mediate between humanity and the Meduse.
My favorite part of this novella was Binti’s time with her family and her pilgrimage into the desert. This is where she learns more about the edan, the magical artifact that saved her life in Binti, and about her role to play in things to come.
I loved how Binti: Home complicated some aspects of Okorafor’s worldbuilding. Binti’s people, the Himba, are marginalized, but their oppression doesn’t mean they don’t have their own prejudices towards outsiders or their own methods of ostracism within the tribe. Binti herself becomes more complex. Before, she was a kind, determined, good-hearted kid; she is still those things here, but they are layered with her struggle with PTSD after the massacre. In some ways, this Binti — and the world she inhabits — is more realistic. There’s more grey area here, and I like that.
I do wish we’d had more time at Oomza University. Binti’s departure at the beginning felt rushed. I’m a nerd for magical school settings and wanted to luxuriate in the details of this particular science-fictional university. If that setting doesn’t fit into the story Okorafor is telling here, however, I will hope to see it someday with another character or narrative.
The other things that bothered me — namely, the cliffhanger ending — were largely symptoms of this being the middle volume in a trilogy and will be, hopefully, resolved in the third and final book, The Night Masquerade, which is due out in January 2018.
Without giving any spoilers I must say that with Binti: the Night Masquerade (2018) Nnedi Okorafor triumphantly delivers a solid, hope-filled ending to this powerful and original story. As you may recall, Binti: Home ended on a cliffhanger, and while our main character endures even more trials and hardships in this third installment, she finds a way to embrace her gifts and her physical changes while remaining true to herself.
The book opens with a horrifying dreamlike sequence that Binti experiences while out in the desert with Mwinyi, an Enyi Zinariya tribesman. Binti, a Himba, was raised to view the Zinariya as barbarians and savages, but in Binti: Home she made a startling discovery about them that she still wrestles with. Faced with a crisis back in her home village, Binti and Mwinyi return there as Binti struggles to coexist with new abilities beyond those she already has of a Harmonizer. She also becomes aware of contact by a third interstellar race, much earlier in Earth’s history than she originally realized.
Once she returns home, she faces a great loss, but must put aside her grief to stop a shooting battle between the extra-terrestrial Meduse and the human Khoush. This means persuading the Himba council to listen to her; no easy task. Internally, Binti struggles with the aftereffects of the massacre she survived in the first book, her own self doubt and the specter of the Night Masquerade, an apparition that only appears to men, but has appeared to her twice (and again a third time near the middle of this book).
Binti is practically super-powered, and is often ignored or diminished because of her sex or her tribe. It would be easy to see her as a fantasy wish-fulfillment character, a “perfect girl,” but Okorafor dodges that pitfall by showing us that Binti has her own biases and prejudices to overcome. Throughout the books she fights with her reflexive responses to the Zinariya. Mwinyi has to point out her blind spots more than once. She is also a member of her own tribe, and struggles to remain, in her mind, a Himba, while she is changing in ways that are not embraced by her community. At times I found her behavior frustrating, but for the most part this was very believable and makes Binti an engaging character.
Binti: The Night Masquerade does not have a perfect plot, in my opinion. There is a supposed twist about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I was not surprised by it. On the other hand, there is another twist that was quite well done, and there is a humorous sub-plot involving the rings of Saturn that delivers everything it promises. Basically, any plot weaknesses were balanced by the brilliant world-building; the Root, the Undying Trees, the Zinariya, and the innovative magic-mathematical concepts that the Himba use are deepened here at truly stand out.
Given the importance of the Oomza University in the first book, it is interesting where Binti: The Night Masquerade ends up. In spite of all the pain and grief Binti has experienced the ending is hopeful and even joyful. Now I am eagerly waiting for an omnibus edition that contains the entire series.