Kids battle arrogance, selfishness, guilt, and a cannibal zombie apocalypse in this lively suite of African-themed middle-grade fantasy stories.
Neill (Bunny Man’s Bridge, 2018, etc.), author of the Elk Riders series, creates a beguiling fictional world where cellphones and Land Rovers coexist with magic and spirits in a traditional African village. In “Jamhuri the Proud & the Tree of the Sky,” the young titular character declares himself a great warrior and demands the hand of the chief’s daughter, Latia Solei. To reach her hut atop an enormous acacia tree, he concocts grandiose, Wile E. Coyote–esque schemes: bouncing from a trampoline, lassoing a flock of flamingos, launching himself from a giant slingshot. But when he finally meets Latia, he gets a lesson regarding women’s autonomy that transitions the story from boisterous picaresque to a quietly resonant meditation on maturity. In the King Lear–inflected “Njambi, the Littlest Daughter,” four sisters set out on separate daunting journeys to Mount Kaliande to find the Water of Life that could heal their ailing father. Along the way, Njambi rediscovers that kindness and compassion pay off—and confronts murkier notions about the paradoxes of life and death. The longest story, “How to Fight Zombies,” finds the living dead besieging a nameless African city, where 13-year-old Anastasia is guilt-stricken when her negligence allows her little brother to be infected with the zombie plague. Advised by Njambi and Latia and assisted by Esmeralda, a blind girl who kicks butt with her walking staff, Anastasia astrally projects herself into Limbo to lead the zombies’ departed souls to the afterlife; unfortunately, she first must confront a 20-meter-tall demon called “Devourer of Souls.” The horror elements here are atmospheric and scary, but the story sometimes bogs down in rumination on the metaphysics of storytelling. Pitched at tweens, Neill’s prose throughout is usually well-paced and richly textured, with a nice balance of vigorous action (“a leopard leapt out at her, swinging its claws and grinning a terrible, hungry smile full of sharp teeth”) and Aesopian moralizing (“To hold a thing, one must keep an open hand”).
An entertaining, piquant set of fantastical yarns.