Bite-size Reads: African Monsters

Book cover: African Monsters, anthology edited by Jo Thomas and Margret HelgasdottirWelcome back to Bite-size Reads, my 2022 challenge to read (some of) the amazing anthologies on my shelves. It’s been a long while since Sinopticon, and today I’m on the trail of African Monsters – the second volume of the globe-trotting Fox Spirit Book of Monsters.

The Book of Monsters currently runs to seven volumes, visiting each continent in turn to share dark tales of the monsters that are rumoured to live there (complete with gorgeous artwork in case you weren’t already having trouble sleeping). I’ll be considering the stories in batches over the coming weeks.

On The Road – Nnedi Okorafor

I have struggled on previous forays into Nnedi Okorafor’s work, so I approached On The Road with some trepidation. More fool me – this was my favourite of this first week’s tales, a strong opening salvo that sets the tone for the anthology, urgent and unnerving and effective. You never go home the same from a trip to Nigeria, but some trips are more transformative than others. A visit to the ancestral village turns into a harrowing experience when a foolish visitor opens a night-time door during the wrong kind of rain. I still don’t enjoy Okorafor’s prose style, but I loved her ancient power and cranky old aunties – and the unexpected ending that might just turn this into a superhero origin story.

Impundulu – Joan de la Haye

A portrait of the monster as a young woman? The impundulu is the lightning bird, a fabulous beast and a witch’s familiar. But the witch is getting old and the impundulu is less obedient than it once was, just another sign that it’s past time she handed control of it to her daughter. There’s not a lot to see here if you’re looking for character or narrative arcs, just a dazzling example of magic and the bleak collision of hope with the acknowledgement that our children are their own people. If great power comes with great responsibility, this is absolutely one of those stories that warns that we are the real monsters.

One Hundred And Twenty Days Of Sunlight – Tade Thompson

A bush vampire narrates his life story to a hunter who takes it all pretty casually (almost certainly because he can’t understand a word being said). While I enjoyed the ways in which this vampire differs from the European tradition – the one hundred and twenty days being a reference to the protective carapace generated on exposure to sunlight – I found myself more frustrated than engaged, hoping for a plot that never materialised or at least for some closure on ideas that the vampire grapples with in passing. While I appreciated that this isolated creature finds and clings to a meaningful human connection, I was (as usual) left cold by Thompson’s take on romance.

Severed – Jayne Bauling

Four students on a road trip up country ignore the elided warnings of the locals as they make their way to the region’s legendary sunken lakes. The narrative slides from observational (ah yes, the lake’s name means the lake of the entangled ones; the bar’s mural is of a water spirit whose name means that which takes by force) to fearful as our protagonist Muwenya begins to accept the truth behind the myths. This follows a well-trodden path, but it’s fun seeing a familiar narrative in a new setting (apparently students on road trips are monster bait wherever in the world you may be); and I enjoyed the nature of the monster at the heart of it.

The Death Of One – Su Opperman

The first part of a gorgeously textured, monochromatic graphic story depicting conflicts between inhabitants of the plain – it’s too soon to comment on narrative, but the visuals are magnificent!

All in all, an intriguing first week – I’m more excited about tales that introduce gods and monsters that are new to me, but I’ve enjoyed getting a new perspective on more familiar creatures too. It’s easy to think vampires have been done to death, but I will always make time for authors who have a new angle to explore (so I will never stop recommending Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s vampiric cartels, which has no place in Africa but I mentioned vampires so it’s obligatory that I bring it up).

I received a free copy from the editor, which it has taken me an awfully long time to get round to reading (sorry Margrét). This did not influence the content (or apparently timing) of my review.