Shigidi and The Brass Head of Obalufon by Wole Talabi
Shigidi and The Brass Head of Obalufon by Wole Talabi is a new addition to the fantasy heist genre, one that brings a sense of freshness due to its backdrop of Yoruba folktale/myth and a sense of depth thanks to its focus on character, as well as a moving close.
The narrative is set in a world of gods and spirits who have organized themselves into companies and regions and who are, unfortunately, losing power (and even entire gods) as faith diminishes in the world. The titular character is a small-time nightmare god, weak and misshapen and miserable in his life and in his work at the Orisha Spirit Company.
All that changes when he meets Nneoma, an ancient and powerful succubus. The two clash over a mortal one night, as Sigidi’s work assignment conflicts with Nneoma’s own purpose, but they soon decide to become partners rather than foes. Nneoma transforms Shigidi into a much more beautiful form (which also has the benefit of breaking his contract with the company) and the two go off to “freelance.” They get pulled back into the orbit of Shigidi’s former company though when the retired chairman Olorun offers them a contract to steal the brass head of Obalufon from the British Museum (guarded by both normal and supernatural methods). It’s no spoiler to say the theft does not go according to plan, as they almost never do in these sorts of stories.
There’s quite a lot to like in Shigidi and The Brass Head of Obalufon, beginning with the two main characters. Both are lonely and miserable when they first meet. But while a desire for companionship is what drives them to partner up, they approach their relationship from different directions, creating a conflict we see early on that continues throughout as Shigidi is persistently adamant about knowing whether or not Nneoma loves him while she is just as persistently adamant in not wanting to give a definitive answer, for reasons that will eventually be made clear. Old almost beyond reckoning, more powerful than most, Nneoma isn’t used to being challenged in any way, but especially in this fashion, and Talabi does an excellent job of using this conflict to heighten tension, enhance characterization, and create some powerfully emotive scenes. Both characters feel fully alive in their hopes and fears, their flaws and strengths, in their slow movement toward learning more about who they are in and of themselves, and who they are (or even if they are) as a relationship.
I’m also a fan of Talabi’s structural choices. He begins in media res, with a pedal to the metal (literally) chase scene where, as Shigidi and Nneoma’s driver says, they’re being pursued by “four living statues and one pissed-off giant.” Oh, and Shigidi is badly wounded and near to dying.
Did I mention the heist did not go smoothly? We then flash back to before the Shigidi and Nneoma meet and then get brought up to present time. That progression however is also interrupted by other flashbacks that fill in other parts of the story, mostly involving Nneoma’s past. I found the bit by bit revelation of just who Nneoma is and also why she’s like she is to be highly effective, while also allowing Talabi to heighten suspense by shifting away from present time to dip into the past.
The background, meanwhile, is richly fascinating. It’s been a real pleasure over the recent years to read beyond the usual Western mythos (both via English-writing authors and authors in translation) and Talabi’s world of Nigerian gods and spirits is yet another example of the too-long-delayed reward of opening publishing to ever more diverse voices, settings, and styles.
The novel moves apace, feeling shorter than its 320 pages, and has a number of effective set action scenes, as well as some nicely tense conflicts that involve more talking than violence (OK, sometimes a little violence). And along with the quest for self-knowledge, the love story, and the action narrative of the heist, Talabi works in some thematic exploration of faith and culture and of the “transience” of the modern world.
And of course, one can’t center a heist on an African artifact kept in the British Museum without reference to the appalling history of imperialism, colonialism, and racism that put it there. One of the most powerful scenes in the book comes when Shigidi sees just how much plunder resides in the galleries, a moment when the veil of fantasy is swept aside for a better view of the bitter ugliness of reality.
Filled with action and tension. An impossible heist under pressure. A fresh mythos. Two characters compelling in their own right and as a couple. Funny at times, deeply moving at others. Sharply, vividly written throughout. An interesting structure. An exploration of both character and societal themes. As I said above, there’s a lot to like in Shigidi and The Brass Head of Obalufon. I’m already looking forward to Talabi’s next work.