Verdict: JAMHURI, NJAMBI, AND FIGHTING ZOMBIES is an exceptional genre-bending read, featuring stylized tales rooted in African storytelling traditions.
In JAMHURI, NJAMBI, AND FIGHTING ZOMBIES, traditional African legends collide with modern perspectives to produce a trio of philosophical adventure stories. “Jamhuri the Proud & the Tree of the Sky” features a pompous young man who performs increasingly ostentatious tricks to rescue a princess hidden in a treehouse before learning a lesson on humility and women’s autonomy. “Njambi, the Littlest Daughter” follows with a tale of four sisters seeking to heal their ailing father with the Water of Life. While her sisters act selfishly and fail, Njambi’s compassion and perseverance lead her to an unforgettable interaction with the spirit world.
The first two stories are conveyed in the otherworldly, moralistic style of magical legends, with the occasionally jarring inclusion of cellphones, online shopping, and other modern amenities. The third and longest story, “How to Fight Zombies,” immediately departs from the established genre and tone with a thrillingly stark zombie apocalypse, where 13-year-old Anastasia must find a way to save her brother after he is bitten by a zombie.
Author Ted Neill employs a circular storytelling structure commonly found in Central African narratives by weaving characters and themes from “Jamhuri” and “Njambi” into Anastasia’s journey. While it is initially surprising to see characters who seemed to live in the surreal world of fable portrayed from Anastasia’s contemporary perspective, Neill masterfully frames the genre-bending suite of stories. In one slyly self-aware moment, a character even addresses the unique combination of ghostly spiritual lore with a zombie outbreak by asking, “Is this a fantasy game or sci-fi? You can’t have both; it doesn’t make sense.”
Middle grade readers will likely relate to the realistic life lessons each protagonist grapples with, such as feeling powerless, navigating independence, struggling with guilt, and learning to share their own stories. However, this is not a book for those who enjoy open endings—although the tales feature philosophical musings, everything is neatly wrapped up by the last page.
Neil includes an introduction about cultural appropriation, questioning whether he, as a white man, should even have written these stories. The insightful essay contextualizes the book and could be useful in launching discussions, but it feels out of place at the start of a middle grade fantasy novel. The overall flow of the narrative may benefit from including the essay as an afterword.
JAMHURI, NJAMBI, AND FIGHTING ZOMBIES is an exceptional genre-bending read, featuring stylized tales rooted in African storytelling traditions.
~Cameron Gillespie for IndieReader