It is an era of tainted technology and mysterious mysticism.
We’re thrilled to share the opening chapters from Shadow Speaker and Like Thunder, the two books comprising the Desert Magician’s Duology by Africanfuturist luminary Nnedi Okorafor. Shadow Speaker is out now, while Like Thunder will be available on November 28, both from DAW Books.
Niger, West Africa, 2074
It is an era of tainted technology and mysterious mysticism. A great change has happened all over the planet, and the laws of physics aren’t what they used to be.
Within all this, I introduce you to Ejii Ugabe, a child of the worst type of politician. Back when she was nine years old, she was there as her father met his end. Don’t waste your tears on him: this girl’s father would throw anyone under a bus to gain power. He was a cruel, cruel man, but even so, Ejii did not rejoice at his departure from the world. Children are still learning that some people don’t deserve their love.
Now 15 years old and manifesting the abilities given to her by the strange Earth, Ejii decides to go after the killer of her father. Is it for revenge or something else? You will have to find out by reading this book.
I am the Desert Magician, and this is a novel I have conjured for you, so I’m certainly not going to just tell you here.
Kwàmfà, Ejii’s home, was a town of slim palm trees and sturdy gnarled monkey-bread trees, old but upgraded satellite dishes, and sand-brick houses with colorful Zulu-style designs. It was noisy, too: its unpaved but flat roads always busy with motorbikes, camels, old cars, and, during certain parts of the year, even the occasional truck. Kwàmfà was also known for its amazing carpets and, after the great change, in the shadier parts of the market, its flying carpets.
After the recent earthquake, Kwàmfà was abuzz with rumors. But as the small town had moved forward after the great change, it moved forward again after the earthquake. Two days later, following a massive cleanup, the market, shops, and schools had reopened and people stopped preparing for the end of the world. Now, another twelve days later, people no longer talked about the earthquake with much urgency. Kwàmfà was a resilient town, even with its troubled past. This had always made Ejii proud. Of course, that didn’t mean that the town’s ghosts didn’t haunt her. Especially in the dark.
“Ejii, please turn on the lights,” her history teacher, Mrs. Nwabara, said.
Ejii didn’t sit that closely to the light switch, but her teacher always asked her to turn them on after the class had watched a digital. It was a cloudy day, and with the shades drawn and the class screen off, the room was pitch dark. It was logical for Ejii to be the one to turn the lights on. Mrs. Nwabara had also entrusted Arif and Sammy, who were also shadow speakers, with the same job when they were in this class last year.
Ejii flipped the lights on. Everyone in the class blinked except her. As she returned to her seat, she was aware of their usual eyes on her.
“Any questions about the French Fifth Republic?” her teacher asked. The class was silent. She smiled. “When did Niger achieve independence?”
More silence. Ejii and two boys raised their hands. The teacher picked one of the boys. “Raji?”
“August third,” he said. He paused, frowning. “1990?”
“Close,” Mrs. Nwabara said. “August third, 1960. It may have been over a century ago, but it was a big turning point.” She leaned on her desk’s edge. She wore light blue pants and a matching silk top, an ensemble that Ejii both liked and was bothered by. Mrs. Nwabara was the only female teacher in the school who had the nerve to wear pants.
“It’s good that all the hype about the earthquake has died down.” She paused again, pinching her chin. “But after it happened, I got to rethinking your next assignment. I have something better for you to do. Forget the oral presentation, but…” Mrs. Nwabara paused dramatically.
An anticipatory silence fell over the class and Ejii wasn’t the only one who couldn’t help grinning. She picked up her e-pal, highlighted the “oral presentation” link and happily deleted it.
“I want this new assignment to be long enough for you to efficiently explore the topic,” Mrs. Nwabara said. “At least seven pages.”
A groan swept through the class and Mrs. Nwabara laughed. “Would you rather do the oral presentation?”
Everyone quickly responded, “No!”
“Okay, then. Write an essay answering this question: ‘What is history?’ We’ve just watched a digital about the French, the people who colonized our country long ago. That is history, but do you feel like you are a part of it?” She paused. “Well, do you?”
Ejii shook her head and said, “No.” When she realized she was the only one who’d spoken, she felt embarrassed. The teacher smiled at her.
“Most of our history books are about foreigners or royalty or the wealthy or the murderous; they rarely focus on people like the farmer who lived and died on his farm or the mother who raised her ten children, the majority of people. Yet we can’t move forward unless we understand the past. Where do you fit in? Who are you?”
“I want you to write yourself into history, because no matter what history books say, even you are a part of it. Tell me about some historical event and how you figure into it.” She paused as several students raised their hands. “No questions asking me what I exactly want from you.” All the hands went down. “This is an open assignment. It’s up to you to write it however you want. Dazzle me. You have a week.”
As Ejii typed notes into her e-pal, she could still hear the shadows; their sound was like the soft static of an e-pal with a broken receiver. She frowned. The shadows had been trying to speak with her since the day of the earthquake. But no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t understand what they were saying. Still, one thing she was sure of was that she had a general feeling. Something bad was going to happen soon.
She suddenly knew exactly what she would write for her assignment… if she could ignore all the noise of foreboding.
That night, she quickly did her other homework and moved right on to her history assignment. She worked feverishly, finishing around four a.m. She put her e-pal down and went to the bathroom, where she ran some hot water over a washcloth and pressed it to her swollen face. It was swollen from crying. Her eyes burned, her head ached, and her stomach felt sour. She looked at herself in the mirror and wanted to punch her fist through it. It was always this way when she thought too deeply about her father. In her ears she could hear the shadows, and their voices were still nothing but aggravating static.
“I don’t understand you!” she said to the shadows, looking at herself in the mirror. She felt like sobbing. Instead she sighed and tiptoed back to her room. She reread her essay, putting a few finishing touches on it. Then she turned her e-pal off, put it on the floor, climbed into her bed, and didn’t sleep a wink.
“Are you sure you want to give… all this detail?” her friend Arif asked, still staring at her essay on her e-pal. He looked very disturbed. “I mean… this is…”
She snatched her e-pal from him. “It’s history,” she snapped. “It… it’s the truth.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” Arif said, taking the e-pal from her again and looking at it. He paused. “It doesn’t exactly follow the assignment and it’s kind of long.”
“It’s what happened and where I fit into it,” Ejii said. “It’s what happened, Arif.”
“Ejii, I know. We were all there,” Arif said. “I’m just saying that this is so… personal. Mrs. Nwabara won’t understand all the…”
“I want to get a high mark in the class,” Ejii said defensively. “Plus… I don’t care if she’s shocked or doesn’t understand. The truth hurts and doesn’t always make sense.”
Arif looked Ejii in the eye. She looked away. “Make a second file, then,” he said. “Keep this one for yourself. Write a lighter version for class. This is… the violence…”
The bell rang. “I’ll do what I want,” she grumbled, taking her e-pal.
Arif caught her free hand before she could leave. “We’ll meet you after class?”
“Sure. Fine. By the dead palm tree,” Ejii said crossly.
All day Arif’s reaction bothered her. What happened had been bad. Her father and his twisted ways. All that he’d done. That day. That historical day. The day that haunted every move she made, always lurking behind her efforts to be happy and normal.
After school, she waited for her friends at the dead palm tree that the school would soon cut down. She had her e-pal in hand. She could hear the shadows whispering their stat- icky whispers.
“Leave me alone,” she said out loud. But of course, they didn’t.
She brought out her e-pal and, shielding its screen from the sun, reread what she’d written. Arif’s right, she thought. She had to change it. Even five years later the incident was disturbing.
Better Told Than Written
I’ve seen so much.
I want you to imagine it.
So, as I said, I’m recording my words as an audio file on this damn near indestructible e-legba, a piece of portable tech so strong it outlasted the apocalypse. Sure, it looks pretty beaten up. That’s because it’s taken quite a beating. But no other personal device could do all that this one does, trust me. Recording something doesn’t even raise its processor-usage level, not even by a fraction. And it’s both solar and lunar. This recording will last.
Some things are better told than written. Maybe the old Africans had it right in initially making their traditions oral. Plus I’m more of a talker than a writer. I don’t have the patience to spend hours tapping on keys. Plus out here in the middle of the desert, I kind of like the sound of my voice.
And I’m an honest guy, not some mumu guy. Of all people, I don’t believe in gossip. Gossip is what got me in this mess in the first place. You can trust me. It’s okay to let your guard down. I’ll tell you no lies. No exaggerations. Fear no ego. No need for suspension of disbelief. This all happened and God help me now.
My friend Ejii liked to laugh about how I barely trusted anyone. She liked to exist in the naïve-nice-person-land where all humans, deep down, are good. I wonder what she thinks now, after so many have proven themselves to be cowards, liars, cheats, murderers, and lackadaisical pacifists who are happy to sit and watch innocent people die terrible deaths. Yeah, I said it. Someone has to. I know what I’ve seen. I know what I’ve had to do. And yeah, this thing is recording.
The Great Change was this weird combination of a nuclear apocalypse and the explosion of powerful juju called “Peace Bombs.” This messed up many of Earth’s laws of physics and brought down the wall between worlds. Then there was a pact of peace. It was written by noble genius baboons with black hands and soft brown fur that smelled like mint and grass. They wrote the pact in a magical language called nsibidi. This pact forced a truce between the evil inflated Chief Ette of Ginen’s Ooni Kingdom and the insanely heroic Jaa the Red One of the Sahara Desert. It stopped a war of the worlds, especially between Earth and the jungle planet Ginen. I’m damn proud to say that I was there and a part of why the pact was successful. So was Ejii, of course. She was a big deal that day.
That pact was some serious, deep, old mysticism. Even after all I’ve seen, I still find it amazing. That it happened at all is unbelievable. That it lasted for so long was nothing short of a miracle. For a few months it kept the monster of war still, and for three years it held it at bay. But the pact eventually disintegrated, as it had to. But so did a lot of other things.
How do I explain all that happened? I’ll make it simple: eventually, all hell broke loose…
Excerpted from Shadow Speaker and Like Thunder, copyright © 2023 by Nnedi Okorafor.