Who Fears Death is the fourth novel by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, and tells the story of a young woman Onyesonwu. From her roots as a child of an Okeke mother and a brutal Nuru rapist, through her realization of her role as a sorceress, and potential place in a prophecy of world-changing consequence, Onye’s journey is one of struggle, joy, despair and hope. At times heart-warming, and at others, absolutely heart-wrenching, Who Fears Death is both a testament to hope, and an elegy for all those who have been through the struggles of the Okeke as a people. It’s a rare and lucky thing for me to start my year of reading with such an excellent and compelling tale as Who Fears Death
In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.
Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny – to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture – and eventually death itself
I’ve been thinking about the right adjective to use to describe my feelings about Who Fears Death. While there is a lot of hope in this story, there is also a lot of suffering and dread and fear. It makes one want to avoid any word that sounds too happy. While the story is serious, there is humour and wit and charm. While the story is dark, there is light and love and laughter. The first word that came to mind to describe my experience with this novel was ‘refreshing’ but that still feels too…chipper and cheery. But I think it might have to be the word I choose. This is my first novel of 2018, a year in which I’ve chosen to go out of my way to emphasize reading novels by people of color, especially women of color, in an effort to address my personal imbalance of over 25 years of reading SFF written predominantly by white men. This is where ‘refreshing’ becomes the word of choice: in comparison to the heavy-handed trope-based storytelling that makes up most of my literate life.
Who Fears Death neither follows the traditional list of tropes for stories of this kind, but neither does it do something so equally lazy as subvert them to make a point. All the pieces are here for those moments. Onye grows to become a sorceress. Previous to this she meets and falls in love with a man named Mwita. He also had the potential to be a sorcerer but he was unable to pass his final test. When she obtains the position he dreamed for himself, and finds himself relegated to the ‘traditional’ woman’s role of healer, he is bitter. That is the part that is a subversion of a trope for trope’s sake. Ooh, look at how we reverse the roles and the man is bitter about being the girly role! But that isn’t what happens here. Instead, while he is bitter, and understandably so, he also communicates his bitterness, they talk about it, and he grows as a person and while he still sometimes wishes for things to be different, he understands that what he wants and what he needs are less important than what is going on around him. His role as a protector is done not by keeping her from danger, but by preserving her and supporting her while she is in danger. Instead of the trope, or its opposite, we just have some real, and honest humans having a real and honest relationship.
It felt very strange throughout to sort of see the shadow of all the ways this story could have gone that would have made it feel a lot more like kind of samey hero journey stuff I’d been previously so used to. Onye has a journey to make, a dangerous quest fraught with peril. We get a ‘you have my sword’ ‘and my axe’ scene that puts together a group of people to go on this journey, and traditionally that’s it. They just go on the journey together and overcome various obstacles, maybe one dies tragically part way through to build tension. Instead here, each of Onye’s friends and companions: Mwita, Diti and her husband Fanasi, Luyu and Binti are whole and complex people throughout as well. They have doubts. They argue, they have internal group conflict. They question their presence on the journey in a way that actually makes you understand if they decided to just pack up and leave. The rest of the group isn’t supposed to pack up and leave, that isn’t what -happens-, but it’s what people do, and so it’s what they do here. Refreshing really is the best word I can apply to this.
Throughout all of the deeply personal storytelling, there is also the thread of a really compelling and interesting world here too. It is and feels post-apocalyptic, there are vestiges of technology that are more advanced than our own today, and the ruins of the same. Very little is revealed to give us any real indication of what happened, and nothing in the story itself really establishes the setting as our Earth. Between the description blurb and an indicator towards the end of the story, it clearly IS our Earth though, which gives one cause to wonder whether the magical powers exhibited by characters in the book were a result of the fate that befell civilization, a development of advanced technology we’ve yet to discover, or whether those powers existed all along in one form or another. While the presence of the setting being future Earth is not particularly relevant to the story, a desire to know more about the timeline of the world is strong for me.
Luckily for my desire, I will be adding the prequel novel The Book of Phoenix to my reading list, to hopefully learn a little more about the world that leads to Onye’s incredible journey. I don’t like to call it this early in the year, having read exactly one and a half novels so far, but I feel it very likely that Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death has already clinched a top 5 spot for the year. Everything about this novel was great, and I look forward to reading more of Okorafor’s bibliography going forward. A lot of my reading list so far, and likely to develop this year will be authors I am reading for the first time, and if even half of them can grab me as completely as Okorafor did, I’m in for a truly wonderful year.
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