#WitchWeek2022 Day 6: Around the World

© C A Lovegrove

Around the World of Fantasy in 8.0 Books, by Lizzie Ross

Chris and I had an empty slot in this year’s Witch Week roster, so the two of us arm-wrestled virtually, best two-out-of-three, for the privilege of writing ANOTHER post.

I won, to Chris’s relief, as he’s been busy with all kinds of musical performances (come to think of it, I didn’t even break a sweat during our contest – I think I’ve been had).

Anyway, I now give you a mini fantasy-world-tour, via my bookshelves. It’ll be a quick trip, along the lines of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium”, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

The Metropolitan Museum of New York. Queen Mother Pendant Mask, Iyoba,16th century.

First stop, Nigeria, the setting for Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. This first volume of Okorafor’s Nsibidi Script Series (Akata Warrior and Akata Woman follow) was published in 2011, and could easily be mistaken for a school-of-wizardry book. Okorafor, however, never provides the familiar classroom scenes, and there are no sinister teachers lurking in the background. Sunny Nwazue’s family moves from New York City to Nigeria, where Sunny discovers she has magical powers and must learn to control them. She and three other students receive special tuition from an elder, but soon all four of them are set a task: find and destroy a powerful witch.

I loved Sunny’s “outsider” status, not just because she is non-native-born Nigerian, but also because she is albino, marking her as “other” even before she speaks. Okorafor’s fantasy world is powered by nature and filled with animal spirits. It’s a world where elders and ancestors support and trust Sunny and her friends as they battle evil.

Sunny’s world is well worth a longer stay, but our next destination beckons: Pre-Islamic 10th-century-Persia, where Ferdowsi incorporated the already ancient tales of the hero Rustam into his Book of Kings. Rustam, trained from birth to be a warrior, wins battles against animals, demons, witches, and mere mortals while still young. He wows the ladies, has his own special horse (Rakhsh), aids various kings of Persia, and almost never loses. The story is full of over-the-top heroic actions, with Rustam astonishing everyone with his abilities and strength:

There was a lengthy exchange of greetings, and then one of the party gripped Rostam’s hand and squeezed it, attempting to hurt the hero. Rostam smiled, and the group stared in wonder at him. Then Rostam squeezed the hand in his, and its owner turned pale, fainted from the pain, and fell from his horse to the ground.

Translated by Dick Davis

It takes nearly 600 years to kill Rustam, and not because he has become old and weak. Were it not for an unlucky stab wound, he could have gone on for a few more centuries. I quickly came to expect such over-the-top feats, similar to what you’d find in Doc Savage or Nancy Drew. You could say Ferdowsi’s Book of Kings is pulp fiction for the 10th century reader.

The Metropolitan Museum of New York. “Suhrab Slain by Rustam”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi, ca. 1610

Now we move on to India, where we’ll make two stops. Our itinerary takes us to Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a lovely YA fantasy book set in a town in such terrible shape that no resident can remember its name. Haroun’s father, a well-known storyteller, is forced to join a political campaign’s PR team, and Haroun tags along. A genie, a magical bird, a princess in distress, an unfairly compromised woman, a loyal son – all add up to a complex allegory about the effects of forced silence and the importance of memory and memories. Remembering one’s past can be the cure for many ailments.

I’d love to linger, but we must stick to our schedule. The Holder of the World, by Bharati Mukherjee (1993) begins in 20th century New England, and moves quickly to 17th century New England and India. Puritans and Rajas seem an unlikely combination, but Mukherjee makes it work in her retelling of The Scarlet Letter. Art historian Beigh Masters travels into the past to track down the “Salem Bibi”, aka “Precious-as-Pearl”, a New England woman depicted in a series of Mughal paintings. Rajas and Hindu gods and British colonialists work against each other in a world not designed for women, yet the Salem Bibi creates a space where she can be in charge. This novel is complex, gorgeous, fantastical and shocking. It kept me enthralled, and I revisit it periodically, envying Beigh her chance to explore these lives.

We head east now, but not far, for Japan is our next port-of-call: author-illustrator Kazuno Kohara’s seasonally appropriate picture book, Ghosts in the House! (2008). Kohara, a Japanese-born linocut artist, currently lives in the UK, which may explain the European features of her protagonist. But the artwork is gorgeous, the story clever and funny. Note that the girl’s white cat is wearing a black-cat costume. Visual word-play!

Image #3 Page from Kohara’s Ghosts in the House! Linocut by Kazuno Kohara, 2008

Across the wide ocean is our next destination, one of California’s Chinatown districts at the start of the lunar new year. (As someone once quipped, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” That’s generally true.) Author Frank Chin gives us Donald Duk, the eponymous protagonist of this coming-of-age story. Donald, embarrassed by his Chinese background, begins dreaming of the 108 Outlaws of the Water Margin, an epic novel from 14th century China. His dreams, however, are set in Spring 1869, when thousands of Chinese immigrants worked on the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad. In his dreams, the Outlaws are among the crew working for Leland Stanford’s Union Pacific Railroad.

This wonderful novel throws us directly into the world of the Chinese American diaspora, with preparations in process for the New Year’s Day Parade as well as for the feast at the restaurant that Donald’s father owns. Thanks to Donald’s dreams, we experience so much more than just a few cultural highlights.

Photograph, “Parade of a Chinese Dragon in Seattle, 1909”, University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections

We’ve nearly finished our journey! But for now, we head – well, we’re heading in an impossible direction. Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010) takes us on a long, lonely ride, as we accompany a fictional Charles Yu, time travel mechanic. When owning a time machine is as cheap as owning a small jet, lots of people decide they can fix current problems by going back in time to, say, stop that guy from selling John Wilkes Booth the gun he uses to kill Lincoln. But the past is immutable, efforts to change it fail, and if a well-intentioned time traveler gets stuck in the past (or, worse, in a time loop), Charles rescues them. Charles spends much of his time in limbo, as he travels from assignment to assignment, with no companion besides his dog (a robot) and the computer.

When he accidentally puts himself into a time loop, he works out an escape that gives him chances to change his own past, without wrecking time itself. The paradox is this: he must write a book his future self has handed to him. This particular fantasy world is funny, quirky, and full of metaphysics. It demands a long stay and time to explore all it has to teach us. And yet …

We must head home, to my apartment, where I have plenty of space for virtual guests. Our last fantasy world is located right in my neighborhood: Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, location of the largest population of Dominicans outside the Dominican Republic. In E. L. Oliver’s The Brujita of Washington Heights (2016), 16-year-old Sofie Rios awakens to her own magical abilities just as her family and neighborhood are threatened by an evil force.

Image #5 Image, “The Horsehead Nebula in Infrared from Hubble”, NASA, ESA, Hubble (2022)

Sofie’s Washington Heights is noisy and comfortable, with teeming bodegas, loud car radios, and street carts serving chimichurri, peeled mangos or syrupy shaved ice. And now, as I walk the neighborhood streets, I can look for locations from Sofie’s story: that park, this view, these buildings, those stairs. I see Sofie and her buddies hanging out on the corner, or down on the subway platform, waiting for the train. It’s a new way to look at this familiar world, where I’ve lived for over half my life.

Thanks for joining me on this trip. I know I’ve given you the barest hints of what these various fantasy worlds can offer, but I trust you’ll find your way back. Bon voyage!

Books reviewed
Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor (SPEAK/Penguin, 2011).
Rostam: Tales of Love & War from Persia’s Book of Kings, by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, tr. by Dick Davis (Mage Publishers, 2007).
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie (Granta Books/Penguin, 1990).
The Holder of the World, by Bharati Mukherjee (Knopf, 1993).
Ghosts in the House!, by Kazuno Kohara (Roaring Brook Press, 2008).
Donald Duk, by Frank Chin (Coffee House Press, 1991).
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu (Pantheon, 2010).
The Brujita of Washington Heights, by E. L. Oliver (self-published, 2016).


Lizzie Ross, co-host of Witch Week since 2018, enjoys a wide variety of books and authors, but fantasy is a favorite genre. You can find her at LizzieRossWriter.com.

13 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2022 Day 6: Around the World

  1. Pingback: #WitchWeek2022 Day 6 | Lizzie Ross

  2. I remember you recommending Akata Witch before, so thanks for bringing it back on to my radar again! I’ve a copy of the Rushdie which I’d forgotten about so will definitely be hoiking it off my shelves soon; and of the others, the Charles Yu title is very appealing, and I’ve seen a couple of other positive reviews of it recently.

    And a personal thanks from me, Lizzie, for contributing this additional post, not forgetting the witty asides which make reading your pieces such a pleasure!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful world tour. Haroun is a longtime favorite but I’ve yet to read any of the others. I love that you ended up in your own neighborhood!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you enjoyed the tour, Lory. Have you read Rushdie’s sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life? And, yes, how nice to arrive at my own home. I’ve had Brujita for several years, just waiting for the right time to bring it to Witch Week. Lovely to be able to include it at last!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What an interesting selection of books and one which is going to add to my TBR quite a bit. I haven’t yet read Rushdie but Haroun sounds a good place to start. Akita Witch, Rostam and The Holder of the World sound very intriguing as well. Thanks for putting this list together🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad I’ve given you some ideas, Mallika. I think you’d enjoy The Holder of the World, which is one of my Desert-Island-Books. Rushdie wrote a sequel to Haroun: Luka and the Fire of Life. Not as great as Haroun, but still very good. However, these two books are nothing like his other works, so they’re not exactly “introductions to”.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you, Lizzie – what a fascinating tour! Most of those authors are new to me, but I did read The Enchantress of Florence by Rushdie a few years ago and have always intended to try more of his books.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What a fantastic selection of books, and you are so well read! I’ve added Charles Yu’s book to my want-to-read list. Lots to look forward to this year. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Not The Friday Five: The Boring Title Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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