Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix Review Round-Up
Part of the work I do here at Chaos Horizon includes eliminating novels from my Hugo and Nebula predictions. I do this for a variety of reasons: the novel is the wrong genre, the novel is too late in a series, the novel has no buzz, the novel has no discernible sales. We can learn as much about the Hugos and Nebulas by what novels aren’t included in those awards as the ones that are.
Sometimes, a novel seems to be a possible contender but then fades away after it comes out. Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix seems to fall into this category. While there is still plenty of time left in 2015 for a book to rise from the ashes—placement on year end lists would really help—I’m not seeing the broad support the book would need to be a 2015 awards contender, at least in the Hugo and Nebula.
Okorafor was in an interesting position going into 2015. Her novel Lagoon came out in the UK in 2014 and got some good awards traction: it was nominated for the BSFA and Tiptree, took 7th in the Locus SF poll, and even finished 16th in the Hugo voting—all without a US publication. The Book of Phoenix seemed poised to follow up on this success. It was a prequel to the Nebula nominated and World Fantasy Award winning Who Fears Death, returning to the origins of that well-liked novel. Book of Phoenix is a short, violent narrative about an artificially designed woman with wings who flees a dystopic America to Africa, and who comes backs an avenging angel to rip down the institutions that created her. This has many of the same themes about personhood and autonomy that Ancillary Mercy, Aurora, and The Just City do. So you’ve got a prequel to an award-winning novel by an author who has just come off a good amount of awards buzz who seems on trend: that has been a past formula for awards success.
But, five months after The Book of Phoenix was published, it doesn’t seem to have connected with audiences. I don’t see much online discussion, and the metrics are very low. On Goodreads in late October, this has 351 ratings and 4.00 score; on Amazon, 40 ratings and 4.1. Compare that to the other major contenders of 2015, most of which are at least 4 or 5 times that number. In a competitive year, you need a certain critical mass of readers to drive you to a nomination.
Part of this stems from Lagoon itself. Book of Phoenix came out in May, and the US edition of Lagoon in July. Did that divide Okorafor’s reading audience? Not a lot of readers are going to by two hardcovers by the same author in a three month span. The US Lagoon publication actually makes Lagoon eligible for both the 2016 Hugo and Nebula, so there’s an outside chance of a nomination there. Book readers don’t have the longest memories, though—will Lagoon be a distant memory by time the 2016 nominating period begins? Will the Okorafor vote be divided between that and Book of Phoenix?
This is a good case study of how Nebula/Hugo history and even pre-release buzz might not translate into award nominations. Your book has come to out and audiences have to embrace it; without word-of-mouth, a book won’t reach the threshold it needs to grab a nomination. Dinosaur Lords is another good example of that: fierce pre-release buzz, then silence. Okorafor’s chances can still change, but I think splitting the audience between Lagoon and Book of Phoenix dooms both. If you’ve got arguments to the contrary, I’d love to hear them.
The book got killed by Publisher’s Weekly: it was called “haphazard” and “This tale of oppression is brimming with anger, but without a compelling reason to care about the characters, Okorafor’s vital larger messages are lost.” It did get a few paragraphs in the NY Times in their “SF and F” roundup article, but otherwise coverage was very light.
We’re thin on the ground here as well, and reviews are definitely tempered in their enthusiasm. Reviewers didn’t find the same, accessible narrative that Who Fears Death provided, and that seems to have scared away potential readers.
There’s the problem—five months after release, and I wasn’t able to find more than a few WordPress reviews. Normally, I have my choice of 15-20 WordPressers to feature. The more people who read your novel, the more can fall in love with it—and those passionate fans are the one that drive awards nominations. Lagoon did far better on the WordPress review circuit than this; if you had to predict one Okorafor book for 2015, it would definitely be Lagoon.
My Take: I enjoyed The Book of Phoenix; I read both it and Lagoon this year, and I preferred it to Lagoon. It was short, disjointed, and violent. I can see why readers would have a problem with it; Who Fears Death featured a young female protagonist that was very easy to relate to. The Book of Phoenix gives as a main character who is barely human, and the books rapid pace (less than 200 pages) doesn’t give her much space to develop. I thought the novel’s herky-jerky style reflected its themes well, and it had a kind of angry intensity to it. 7.5 out of 10.