Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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Paperback, 306 pages
Published April 10th 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

It’s certainly a relevant point to say that the SFF genre, as a whole, has a need for some diversity. We have no problem believing, accepting, and creating fanciful alternative worlds, continents, planets, the works – however, we always seem to create these in an caucasian-centric, Western-style world. Sure, Westeros, Elan, or any of the other magical worlds we know and love are interesting, unique, even extremely creative. But at the end of the day, they’re still Western worlds, with Western people and cultures.

Which is all well and good, most of the time. It’s tried and true, it’s popular and it’s worked, and us white folk are plenty comfortable with it, because it’s what we know. However, at this point in time, it seems like we should be able to diversify a bit, and appreciate other cultures, appreciate their lore and customs, and appreciate the people and places that exist outside of our western world. And it stands to reason that we should be able to come up with some creative, non-anglo worlds, does it not?

One would think.

However, the unfortunate truth in my reading world is that many of these are not successful. I adore the idea of an African, Asian, or Middle-Eastern set and fashioned fantasy. There’s a huge pile of untapped lore, culture, settings and styles that are waiting to be tapped and used in this genre of literature, and interesting and compelling novels are desperately needed in these areas. Some novels have come out in these settings that have been successful in my eyes – Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings was wonderful. Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars and Under Heaven are great, albeit not heavy on the culture of the area. Unfortunately, I’ve had qualms with many of the other books in Eastern/African settings – books such as Throne of the Crescent MoonThe Black God’s War, or The Emperor’s Knife offered a glimpse of greatness, the possibilities of these settings, but just did not *click* for me, did not put all the pieces together.

Alas, Lagoon again was full of potential – Nnedi Okorafor is someone who I’ve read about quite a bit, read samples of some of her work, and find her to be an interesting and cool person. She’s the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, a scholar in many writing-related fields, and has won many awards for her work. Naturally, I had very high hopes coming into Lagoon, and hoped it would be a successful African culture fantasy that would help springboard me into more similar works. However, it didn’t quite hit that mark for me.

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The plot of Lagoon centers around 3 main characters, as well as a handful of ancillary characters, of varying levels of interest. They happen to be at the same place at the same time, when mysterious aliens land outside the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Much of the book is spent introducing these aliens, and trying to complete their request of getting them to the Nigerian president. This is essentially the crux of the entire story.

It sounds interesting in theory, but unfortunately, the ‘in theory’ is the extent of it. Lagoon is a relatively short novel, however it attempts to wedge a lot into those pages. I say “attempts” simply because it’s just not successful in this venture. So many cultural commentary pieces, human rights, political and religious corruption, human nature and a plethora of other social and ecological issues are introduced, but very few play a significant enough part, and it sometimes feels like ideas are brought up just so they are present in the book, without serving much purpose.

The biggest downfall of the book are the directional and writing decisions. Several characters are introduced into the story, but end up serving very little purpose – some of these even get POV-type chapters, but just fizzle out and get no resolution. Certain aspects are pushed and repeated over and over, in a very hamfisted manner – the most obvious of these are the anti-Christian sentiment. The Christian characters are presented as one-dimensionally misguided, the ‘father’ is presented as completely corrupt, going as far as to introduce him by “walking between his BMW and his Mercedes”. I’m no fan of Christianity or religions as a whole, but they’re presented in a very black-and-white manner in this novel.

So many of the plot pieces get explained very little, or explored very little. The aliens are omnipresent, but are explored almost not-at-all, and very little is filled in on them. There’s a sentient road that eat bones, which people talk about constantly and there are seemingly whole chapters devoted to, yet nothing becomes of it and the plot line for that just ends. This is a repeat problem throughout the book with many of the threads that are started.

The writing itself is alright at points, but I had a lot of qualms with it. Nnedi seems obsessed with mentioning brand names at every turn, and it often comes across as extremely awkward. I don’t know how many times “Youtube” was used, but it was a lot. People didn’t pull out their cell phones, they pulled out Blackberries. I cringed at one point when “flat-screen high definition television” was used – how is all of that relevant? What did you gain by not just saying “television” there? It felt as though there was constant pop culture references, as if a desperate attempt to say “look at how relevant the book is! Look at all this pop culture!”. It just came across to me as awkward. Also, apparently Drake is a “shitty, whiny rapper” – just in case you were wondering.

Some of the idiosyncrasies got a bit old as well. I seriously lost track of the number of times people sucked their teeth – I swear, probably 50+ in the book?  It happened over and over and over, and after a while it was downright nails-on-chalkboard style for me. I cringed every time another person sucked their teeth, including one towards the end where a woman did it 3 times in one paragraph. I don’t know if this is an African culture thing, or just a weird writing quirk, but it was infuriating after a while.

The repetition bled over into the prose as well – often character names would be repeated over and over and over in a short period of time, yet other time gender pronouns were used instead, over and over, making certain conversations very confusing. Characters would repeat dialogue phrases numerous times, whether externally or internally, and it became a bit grating, and left a lot of feelings of deja vu – I even went back and reread a portion because I thought I’d already read it.

The ideas and setting for this book are interesting, and really could be promising for future works. However, the execution was lacking on the writing and organizational side, as well as the editing front. This book either needed to be much longer, or needed to have a lot of pieces removed that did not fit with the rest of the story, or did not serve a long-term purpose. Lagoon was a novel with plenty going for it, but it just could not get it’s act together enough to make it into a good book for me. Nnedi is still a fascinating author and person to me, and I’ve heard good things about some of her shorts, so I’m not going to write her off. However, I do have trouble recommending Lagoon to others.

Rating: 2 / 5 

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2 thoughts on “Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

  1. Oh no! Um, I think some of your issues with this book are things that would bother. I absolutely hate when any entire group of people are always portrayed in a negative way, it usually detracts from the point the author is trying to make (when they are, which I suspect is the case here versus when the author is just using prejudiced stereotypes to portray a group a of people.)

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