It’s nearly impossible to talk about Binti: The Night Masquerade without discussing elements of Binti and Binti: Home, so I am not even going to try. And to be honest, the best thing that happens in Binti: The Night Masquerade, from a storytelling perspective, is a plot surprise a bit more than halfway through the novella, and I am not going to avoid talking about that either.
In Binti: Home only her personal intervention prevented hostilities between the Khoush and the Meduse. By the end of that novella, her paternal grandmother’s people have taken her out into the desert for considerably more time than they had initially promised when she agreed to go with them. She has learned that, far from being subsistence-level savages, the Desert People, who call themselves Enyi Zinariya, have known for centuries that humanity is not alone in the universe and have harbored some artifacts of alien supertechnology for generations. She learns that her edan, which she has only just begun to unlock while in a deep mathematical trance, is one such artifact. Heedless of the conflict brewing back at Binti’s home, her grandmother begins instructing her in the wisdom of the Enyi Zinariya, which she will need to know to claim her full inheritance, both among the people she grew up with, the Himba, and when she returns to the interstellar Oomza University. In the midst of that learning, Binti has a vision of her family in great danger. Her father tells her that she should stay where she is, because she is the one being sought, but the connection breaks. Binti decides that she mus return immediately. The Enyi Zinariya decline to accompany her, but do allow a young man, Mwinyi, to guide her back.
Binti: The Night Masquerade opens with a renewal of the vision of her father, and this time Binti can see the rest of her family, but not her mother. She is still in the desert, days away from the home she believes is under attack, and she’s about as patient as Luke on Dagobah. She’s also struggling to hold her grip on reality. The Enyi Zinariya have activated something deep within her: a combination of ancestral memory and long-distance mental communication, combined with additional abilities that draw on her training and disposition as a harmonizer. These, in turn, are interacting in unpredictable ways with the parts of the Meduse that have become a part of her over the first two books.
Even before she gets home, Binti is reeling, struggling with all of the things happening to her, and struggling in a characteristically teenage way to remember that not everything is about her. Mwinyi is also a harmonizer — he comes to an arrangement with the wild dogs they encounter in the desert — and he looks at things a little differently than Binti.
“I’m not Himba,” [Mwinyi] said, without looking away from the fire. “Your otjize looks like adornment to me. You don’t look naked. Come and eat. We’re not staying here long.” (p. 18)
“Ah, that explains why you’ve never seen an Icarus,” [Mwinyi] said. “They’re large green grasshoppers who like to fly into fires. Then they fly out of the flames and dance with their new wings of fire and fall to the ground wingless. The wings grow back in a few days. Then they do it again. The zinariya says that some woman genetically engineered them as pets long ago.”
I looked around for the wingless grasshopper. When I saw the creature, I ran to it. I picked it up and held it to my face. It smelled like smoke. “Ridiculous,” I whispered as it jumped from my hand to the sand and hopped wingless into the darkness.
“Can … can you harmonize with them? Ask them why they do it?” I asked, coming back to the fire.
“Never bothered. I doubt they know why they do it, really. It’s how they were programmed by science, I guess.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “But I’m sure they rationalize it somehow.”
“True. I’ll ask one someday.” (p 20)
When they get closer to Binti’s home, Mwinyi tells her that the situation is worse than they expected. The Khoush came again for her Meduse friend, Okwu, but could not find it. The Khoush thought that her family knew where Okwu had gone. They set fire to the centuries-old dwelling where her whole family lived and had taken refuge. Shortly after, long-distance communication with Binti’s father had stopped. Shortly before they reach their destination, Binti has another vision, this one of the Zinariya, the golden aliens who gave the Desert People technology and whose name they adopted as their own. Binti is torn between past and present, overwhelmed in all of the times she sees. Because when she does get all the way home, everything is worse than expected.
The Khoush and the Meduse are powerful, more obviously powerful than the Himba. And as the proverb says, “When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Her people have suffered. The home she grew up in is burned out, and there is damage to numerous other places in her town. Many Khoush died as well, and there was fighting that involved at least one of the Meduse. On top of this, Binti has again seen the Night Masquerade, an omen of great change. It’s only supposed to be seen by men, and, as the name implies, at night. Yet she sees it during the day.
“‘I … saw the Night Masquerade again,’ I said. ‘In broad daylight. We don’t know anything anymore.’
“‘Back at the Root?’ [Mwinyi] asked. Even Enyi Zinariya people believed in the Night Masquerade.” (p. 38)
And of course things can get worse. Binti knows, as no one else nearby does, that there are Meduse ships hiding nearby. More Khoush aggression could turn this incident into a general war, something it looks increasingly like people on both sides of the divide would welcome. Binti invokes her special status to call a council that, by Himba tradition, should only be called by a man. At the end of a tense day, the elders gather, listen to her impassioned pleas, and turn her down. Okorafor is not making it easy for her hero. Nevertheless, she persists, and sets up a last meeting for peace.
Like a good hero, Binti draws on her people’s power. Sparks fly; she shows the two sides the futility of their fight.
“‘Okay, Binti,’ [the Khoush king] said, his voice soft and his face slack with awe as he gazed at me. He nodded. ‘I … I agree to the truce.’
The Meduse chief breathed out a great puff of its gas and so did his two comrades and Okwu. Several of the Meduse hovering near the ship did the same. Then the chief spoke to me in Meduse. ‘I will listen to the Binti. She is right. This fight is useless.’
“‘The war between Khoush and Meduse ends,’ I said, bringing my hands together. Immediately, both balls of current extinguished, sending a ripple of energy through me that made me stumble back as it all stopped. (p. 72)
In an old-fashioned pulp tale, this would be the end, the hero’s power demonstrated, the outlandish aliens cowed, all is well. Someone among the Khoush has other ideas. Shots ring out. Both sides react as soldiers’ reflexes dictate, withdrawing to their sides and shooting to cover their getaway. Both have forgotten that Binti is there in the middle, in the crossfire.
“I could actually hear my blood draining into the desert sand beneath me. My back stung in a distant way. My chest was wet and cool, open. My legs, whether they were just torn up or actually torn off, were gone.
“Limply, I raised my arm and let it drop to my nose. I sniffed the otjize on it and it smelled like home. I heard Mwinyi calling me as he fell to his knees beside me. He was shaking and shaking, his eyes wild. His beautiful bushy hair covered with dust and sand. But I was smelling home. I closed my eyes.
“[As the Night Masquerade had said,] Death is always news.” (p. 74)
Titular, first-person narrator through two and a half books, dead on the ground.
What does Okorafor do next? Switches to a third-person point of view, for starters. She shows readers the scene from Mwinyi’s perspective, and then from the perspective of Binti’s best childhood friend, a now a young man who had not stood by her in the Himba council. She even shows a little from the alien Meduse point of view, “Okwu watched Mwinyi closely. The human reminded it so much of Binti. Harmonizers are the same, Okwu thought. And from a distance, it felt many others of its kind agree with it. It stayed there and waited.” (p. 79)
Things, though, are not as they seem. Mwinyi’s ability to communicate with living things reveals a secret harbored by the Root, the house where Binti’s family had taken refuge. The Root tells him of levels of refuge that had not been known to Himba, Khoush or Meduse. The ship that brought Binti back to Earth was near to giving birth in Binti: Home, and the new ship was born off-stage birth during the recent events. It was to take Binti on her final journey, out to the rings of Saturn, in accordance with the visions of the Zinariya that she had had in the desert.
Death is always news, but it may not be the final word.