Bite-sized Books: Binti – The Night Masquerade

Book cover: Binti The Night Masquerade - Nnedi Okorafor (a black woman with blue tentacle hair looks at an object in her hands)As Binti struggles to adjust to the zinariya, she is overwhelmed by visions of her family in mortal danger. With no sign of Okwu, she and Mwinyi rush back. Can the master harmonizer who sits at the nexus of so many cultures bring peace, or is her legacy to be only conflict?

Full disclosure: I’ve persisted with this series because I felt I had to, rather than because I wanted to, which isn’t the greatest start for any uphill battle. As I’ve said in the past: I want to enjoy Binti far more than I actually do. This makes me sad, because there are all sorts of interesting things going on – but there are just as many things that throw me out of the story with irritation or puzzling logic. To be fair to Okorafor, the logic generally does make sense from a very specific point of view – but it’s telling that I’m not reading naturally from a place where that’s the case.

One of my issues is that I don’t feel that Binti is a series of three novellas. While the first could stand alone, the second and third are a single narrative that has been arbitrarily (arguably, given the cliffhanger at the end of Home, even cynically) cut into novella-size segments for serialised publication. I don’t think it does the story any favours – encouraging me to leave time between reading one segment and the next hasn’t helped my engagement or my recall.

My second issue is how much time Binti spends fighting herself and moping about how awful her situation is. I mentioned this in Home, too – I want to be sympathetic to a girl who is, after all, quite young and who has been through some very traumatic experiences. But she’s also an Ultra Special girl in every single way, and each book finds a way to make her Even More Special – and she rails against it, every time. By the time we reach the end of Night Masquerade, the ways in which she is now special are so ludicrously many that while I wanted to find it magical, I just couldn’t cut through my scepticism.

When a certain plot twist takes place, I nearly cheered (SPOILER – mouse over to read), but as with the threat to Binti’s family, there are numerous unsubtle hints that things are not as they appear. And Binti does eventually recognise that she’s being absurd; although she persists in thinking of herself as broken rather than different, which really grated. Tack on what feels awfully like an insta-crush from Mwinyi (because it’s hard to see why he’s so enamoured of the difficult girl he’s saddled with beyond ‘because the tropes demand it’), and there were few pages that didn’t set my teeth grinding.

Consequently – and in spite of moments of admiration for the developments in the second act that finally addressed issues that had been annoying me (such as the Himba finally being called out for their prejudice and intractability) – I found it hard going. There’s an epic personal journey here, but the miles feel awfully long for such a short story and my issues with it stacked up far past a point where I could find it satisfying.

It’s a shame. There’s some lovely world-building along the way, and I think it’s important that we see more space opera so deeply embedded in non-Western traditions (yes, even while I struggle with it). I loved touches like the blue and white tiles on the Khoush ships (in case anyone had missed their cultural roots); and the detailing of the Himba ceremonies and traditions. Even Okwu gets some personal development (…although he’s also considered Binti’s partner by her people, which reminded me of my issues relating to consent in book one), and the political machinations of the elders are intriguing. But I couldn’t get on with the characters within the intriguing setting.

Your mileage may vary. I finished book three with a ‘whatever’ and a sense of gratitude I could leave Binti to her future.