Book Review: Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okoafor

The third Binti book may have closed a series of highly successful books.  The first Binti was awarded the Hugo and Nebula awards, among others, for its very original ecosystem of Earth civilizations and aliens.  The second one got nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards, and this book got the Hugo nomination nod.  However, this success had been in a downward spiral, with this title getting the nod only after Martha Wells withdrew two of her novellas out of consideration (she still won with the third one, which she left in the running).  The Binti series is a prime example of what happens when worldbuilding is not enough.

Binti takes place in a universe where space travel and aliens are common.  People form tribes, mix very advanced technology with archaic traditions, and exhibit various strange powers, such as the ability to communicate by mind over long distances or talk to plants and animals.  One of the most powerful images Okoafor is portraying is having characters visualize mathematical formulas for objects and events, and manipulate the formulas, in order to understand or even influence these objects.  This is akin to watching computer code overlay over the world in the Matrix franchise.

Binti comes from a very traditionalistic human tribe, and in order to get to an intergalactic university where she had been accepted, she must run away from home.  The first two books take us through this storyline, as well as Binti’s transformation to a human/alien hybrid, which causes her hair to turn into tentacles.  She is joined by a Medusa, an alien whose race she merged with.  Over the course of the books she repeatedly stops conflicts between these aliens and a human tribe called Khoush.  In The Night Masquerade, the story repeats itself.  The Khoush come to her village to find the Medusa she is with, and when they don’t find it, kill Binti’s entire family.  She returns home shortly thereafter, manages to broker peace talks between the two groups, only to be caught in the crossfire between them when the fighting starts again, and is killed in a very gruesome fashion.  Her remains are taken into a sentient living fish, which is used for space travel.  There, she is slowly regenerated, transformed into a three-way hybrid between humans, the medusae and the fish, and returns to her studies.

This summary does not give full justice to the entire book.  There are a few side twists and not so surprising surprises.  Nevertheless, the story is comprised primarily of conversation, feelings and descriptions of the traditions Binti is bound by.  For example, the women of her tribe must have all visible body parts covered by red mud-like substance, at all times.  The number of times this is being discussed in the title could fill at least a chapter.  The substance played a role in the first book, but since then it served only as a filler or a catalyst for very minor internal conflicts.  I was expecting this element to show Binti’s internal growth, as she either abandons this tradition or gets convinced that it is important, but instead she is waffling through the entire book like the little girl she is.

One thing must be evident from my plot summary, though: the worldbuilding is wonderfully weird.  This had been the biggest strength of the series.  It really takes the readers out of their comfort zones and makes them work hard to understand everything that is going on.  In this, the series remind me a little of the Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin, which also had very strong and unique worldbuilding.  Unfortunately, both series failed at the actual storytelling, and didn’t carry the series beyond the initial infatuation with the new and wondrous setting they described.  Where Broken Earth featured highly unlikable characters, Binti is simply flat and uninteresting.  She is being carried by the events, almost in a dream-like state.  This is especially evident when she learns that her entire family had been killed, at which point she gets portrayed as merely sad.  By contrast, when she is killed, the story takes a heart wrenching, emotional turn, which almost left me in tears.  Binti comes across as emotionally stunted in this example.  Consequently, I couldn’t get too invested into this story.  The worldbuilding was fun in the first book, but by the last title in this trilogy I just didn’t care anymore.  Binti: The Night Masquerade doesn’t even do as much as providing closure to the series.  Instead, it ends where the first book ended: with Binti back at the university, ready for another year of studies.  Time will tell whether the series continues, and whether it can become relevant again.

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