“The Queen of Zazzau” novel is a story I needed without knowing it. Like most NJLers, I am a heavy consumer of stories and fantasies in all formats I can afford (and some I can not). Cherry and I both have an affinity to anything with strong world building, flawed yet interesting characters, and honestly overall fun to read. So please try to understand my excitement when I found out about the “The Queen of Zazzau” by J.S. Emuakpor. A story about an African princess, turn warrior, made queen, with gods, and magic written BY a black woman?! *Cue God’s plan playing in the background.* To add to the awesomeness of such a premise, when I later found out that this is based on a true story, that there was an actual Amina who was a Hausa queen in Northern Nigeria….fam. Did you know Xena the Warrior Princess was loosely based on her exploits as a warrior? That she ruled for almost 40 years as woman in a time that certainly was not easy in the 1500s? Or how about she ruled historically one of the largest and extensive Hausa kingdoms ever? Hell, to this day there are still signs of her legend through statues and the standing walls around her trade cities. Talk about Black Girl Magic for real.
The novel centers around Amina the princess of Zazzau, and how prophecy and destiny makes her into a both queen and legend. It starts with Amina in her mid to late 20’s with her bodyguard/best friend Jaruma during a confrontation with an enemy state called Kwarafa. The conclusion of this initial contact leads the audience to a strong impression of Amina’s character and why she makes the decisions that contribute to her rise. I enjoyed J.S. Emuakpor’s decision to reveal early in the story the prophecy surrounding Amina from birth that she was destined to become the Wife of War and be the cause of hundreds of deaths. Amina, being strong willed and having a kindness of heart, tries her best to prevent this from happening at all costs. However, her naivete as a princess slowly loses to the reality of responsibility as a future queen.
What was great to me reading this is even though I am well versed in the tropes of a hero’s journey and the genre of fantasy itself, I had to look deeper into African cultural aspects to better grasp this story. For example,I know what a “ Duke”, a “ Knight”, and a “ Halbert” are because of the Western European fantasy I have read. Yet, I had to Google and refer to the glossary for definitions of “Gimbiya”, “ Takouba”, and “ Sarauniya.” From stories like “ A Song of Ice and Fire” to “ Lord of the Rings.” the majority of today’s popular fantasy is written with that European background in place almost as a default. Some would say this makes sense, considering the historical background shared between most readers...but that argument in itself is a lie. Even sci-fi and fantastical stories written by persons’ of color have this default narrative, whether there is a tone or perspective from a P.O.C. or not. Emuakpor writes from a African ( Nigeria specifically) backdrop, and does this with an apparent bias. There is nothing more special to me than reading about a person of color and feeling like the writer wrote them with such authenticity that, as a black person, I instinctually pick up on. A good example is when Jaruma, who technically is her servant, throws shade at Amina. Her love and manner of showing it reads truthful. It is a sisterly bond I have seen with black women in real life and it grips me to the story organically.
Another strength the“ Queen of Zazzau” has for itself is the magical world offered through African mythology. In most European-viewed fantasies, things like fetishes, or non Abrahamic religions, are considered taboo and almost always linked to evil or savage like moments in the adventure. So to have a story that discusses them without a negative connotation, or makes them seem as natural as spell incantations in the “ Harry Potter” series is refreshing. A perfect example is seen in the character of Ruhun Yak’i, the God of War. From his demeanor towards Amina, to the magic he is able to do, and even the limitations of his magic as the God of War are clear examples of the black lens this is all being done through. So while the reader can clearly see the character template of most Gods of Wars seen in stories in Ruhun, Emuakpor gives him a distinctive personality and way of doing things that is strongly African. As we watch the transition from first brutish interaction with Amina to his docile-like nature that stems from Amina’s own strong personality later in the book, it is clearly told from a person of color’s perspective, and is a joy to read from start to finish.
I never realized how thirsty as a reader I was for Afrocentric fantasy works until this story and I look forward to more from J.S. Emuakpor. “The Queen of Zazzau” is a great introduction to the author, and a thrilling adventure I could hardly put down. While I personally would have loved to have seen this story fleshed out into multiple books, I know that is more my personal taste and will bear with a great story ending early. Amina is a strong black woman with a heart for her people and a sensibility of balance between her people and herself that I admired. The afrocentric backdrop makes this story feel culturally important to the reader, which I imagine is one of the goals Emuakpor had in mind when creating this story. Lastly, the fact that all of this is based on a real-life Amina Zazzau and her powerful 34 year reign in Nigeria makes this a tale I plan to share with as much friends as possible, out of my own sense of duty and love.
For more from J.S. Emuakpor
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An avid procrastinator of starting multiple books at once and never finishing them.