Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
reviewed by jim hepplewhite
There's a party trick where a person pulls the tablecloth out from under a set dining table in one fluid, swift motion and none of the glasses, plates or silverware are disturbed. Dr. Nnedi Okorafor tries that trick in Binti: The Night Masquerade, and unfortunately, the table’s a mess afterwards.
The meal's great. Dr. Okorafor's one of the best writers in the genre and on a sentence by sentence level, Binti: The Night Masquerade does not fail her. She sets her table precisely. But then she pulls the tablecloth and each carefully laid plate flies into the air. Over the course of the book, the food haphazardly descends all over the table. There's buttered peas in the wine. The beef tenderloin landed inside the palate cleansing yogurt. The salad gains an additional condiment: gravy.
The cliffhanger that Binti: Home left readers at was the rending of the tenuous peace between the Meduse (space jellyfish, if we're reductive) and the Khoush (a faction of Binti’s people at war with the Meduse) by the disappearance of Binti’s Meduse friend Okwu. Surprising literally zero people (figuratively), tensions flared, and Binti (now part Meduse, her hair turned into stingers) must return home from a days long journey through the desert to keep the two sides from turning her home village into a war zone.
Dr. Okorafor writes all sides in the conflict well: the two fighting groups (the Meduse and the Khoush), as well as the residents of the village who are stuck between their crosshairs. Dr. Okorafor wisely does not rob those villagers of their agency and does not reduce them to quivering persons running for their lives.
By then, I can see her fingers on the tablecloth, but by the time it registers, the meal is airborne and my mouth's agape.
"I yanked my arm away. I could feel my okuoko writhing wildly now. Without otjize what I must have looked like? 'You shot my friend,' I growled. 'It's the third time you people have tried to kill it since we arrived here! You agreed to the pact through Oomza Uni knowing you were lying through your teeth.'
'I doubt one dead Meduse is a pact destroyer after they killed a ship full of our smartest and finest,' Iyad snapped. 'They're barely flesh, anyway.'
My vision blurred with fury. 'Khoush scholars attacked the Meduse chief, took its stinger, and put it on display in a museum!' I stepped right up to Iyad's face. I am not tall. Nor am I roped with muscle. I barely came up to this man's chin and I had to look up to meet his eyes, but he was scared. I saw it in his face. I smelled it wafting from his naked skin. He was scared of me. I'd seen the Night Masquerade twice, I was Meduse, I was Enyi Zinariya, I was Himba, and I had no home.
'I am Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Dambu Kaipka Meduse Enyi Zinariya Osemba, master harmonizer,' I said. I let myself free and though I felt calmer, my rage stayed and I was glad. I called up a current and held up my hands to show it connecting to my index fingers like soft lightning. I swirled my fingers and the current coiled into a ball hovering before Iyad's eyes. 'I do not want to see my homeland and my people destroyed by a stale ancient irrational fight between people who have no real reason to hate each other. When the sun rises, come as you've agreed, to the Root that you reduced to char and ash, where my family lies dead. The Meduse will be there and you both will bury this idiocy once and for all.' With the help and power of us Himba, I thought, angrily. Because neither of you is reasonable enough to do it on your own.
I didn't wait for his answer. I pulled in my current, turned, and walked back to Okwu and Mwinyi."
The Night Masquerade's tone changes deeply around the two thirds or three quarter mark of the book. At about that point, Dr. Okorafor introduces a series of bewildering reveals which change the tone of the work dramatically. I write around them because I want to go easy on plot, but suffice to say the capstone moment puts the whole series in a different, unflattering light.
The image I think of to show my bewilderment is a cross examination undone by the sound of a whoopee cushion and my once intimating interlocutor deflating and flying around the room revealed as a balloon animal.
These reveals (and there's more than one) are a jarring tonal shift from the straight-faced tone of the series. I bought into Binti running from home to attend Oomza Uni. I bought into the attack giving her PTSD and her living with it. I bought into her coming home and the life following her, to mangle a lyric. I believed in the culture shock. And of course Binti as a series did have moments of levity. They were great! No good work has only one gear.
I stress: Dr. Okorafor does not slack on imagery, description or character. I felt the dry chill of the desert through which Binti walks. I'm reminded of the absolute darkness of the desert at night. The conflicts are believable. Dr. Okorafor's bibliography proves she's a skilled writer with vision. But that capstone was where I (and more importantly, my partner, who liked the series more than I did) stepped off the ride.
"When I returned to myself, the golden ball was on the floor, the trees were quiet and Mwinyi was standing over me, a perplexed look on his face.
'What was that all about?' he asked.
'Not as much as I expected,' I said with a laugh as I got to my feet."
My ultimate comparison for Binti: The Night Masquerade is Mass Effect 3 and specifically, the botched ending. Binti: The Night Masquerade is the most disappointing book I read in 2017. I cannot recommend it.