Actor Omar Epps creates a YA Afro-futurist world that’s basically an OK comic book without art
It is no coincidence that Nubia: The Awakening is published the week that Wakanda Forever opens at the movie theaters. Unbound by any responsibilities to that other afro-futurist production, actor and producer Omar Epps is able to release his own afro-futurist YA fiction about a new generation of gifted refugees from an imaginary country run by a super-powered Black elite. And it’s not terrible.
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In fact, it’s even ok in parts. writer and editor Clarence A. Hynes has aided, abetted and guided Epps’s first foray into novel-writing. The plot kind of works, there are some fun characters and it has a defined world, storyline and struggle. The significant characters even have–as is crucial across the whole YA genre—either no father or an evil father.
In a New York City, long since flooded because of climate change, the rich elite have built themselves an enclave in the sky, reachable by carefully guarded elevators. Nubians, Black refugees from an island apparently destroyed by a storm, inhabit the worst of the downtown—the Swamp. Our heroes, Uzochi, Sekou, Lencho, Vriana, Aren and Zuberi, are all at Public School 104, oppressed by poverty, racist teachers, and a gang called the Spiders.
As well as the types of trauma that concern vulnerable refugee communities the self-doubt, longings, urges and uncertainties that visit teenagers the world over plague the high schoolers. To make things murkier, in the world below, there’s a struggle at the school between the Spiders, the Divine (a Nubian gang) and the unaffiliated. In the world above, there’s also a struggle in elite society between the ineffectual mayor and the powerful autocratic schemer Krazen St. John.
Charismatic, and piggybacking on disasters, St. John has risen to power by projecting strength through personal performances and through his private militia of “St. John soldiers” who act as New York’s de facto police. When he hears that the new generation of Nubian children have their nation’s traditional powers—“the kinetic”—he wants to use them for his own ends. He has a daughter, Sandra, who is barely a few years older than the high schoolers, as well as a kind of surrogate daughter who Sandra hates, called Tilly.
So, there’s plenty of scope for dramatic yearnings, mirrorings, generational distrust, betrayal, and interracial conflict—and the book delivers some of it— but the whole thing is shlocky and unresolved. I’m all in favor of more Afro-futurism and God knows plenty of sci-fi over the years has been lazy, kitsch nonsense, but why would you just deliver a novel as poor as the recent Black Adam if you didn’t have to?
It’s fair that the superpowers are nascent, meaning that the developing teens don’t yet fully understand them, but the parents and elders seem clueless too, with the exception of Adisa the elder who we barely hear from before he dies. Where does it come from? How do you control it? How was their island destroyed when they had power over the elements? Or, if, as one character suggests, super-powered Nubians themselves were responsible for making the storm, then how does the climate change fit in?
And, while I understand the pull of the name “Nubia,” why name an island after the legendary desert region in southern Egypt? The authors are blessedly free from the constraints of DC and Marvel but seem determined to bind themselves with alternative, equally dumb tenets.
Let’s just move past the cliché of generation of kids finding their powers and a wise elder dying as he passes on his knowledge to them. Maybe that’s just the price of entry that we have to pay. But still, the novel is bloated at almost 400 pages long and, apart from one medium-sized event, there’s no climax to the book. If it is a pilot episode of a TV show—which it might well be—it’s about 300 pages too long. If they intend Nubia to be a whole series, then maybe more things ought to happen.