Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
An African girl born of rape, ostracized for the light skin and freckles that reveal her parentage, boldly overcomes her social standing to seek revenge on the people who destroyed her mother’s village and have oppressed her people for years. This definitely doesn’t sound like the premise for a thick epic fantasy, but in Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel for adults, Who Fears Death, that’s exactly what this situation is. Onyesonwu learns from an early age that she’s different from her Okeke peers, who call her Ewu, a word that represents her status as a child of the strategic rape that soldiers of the opposing Nuru tribe have been using as a genocidal weapon for years.
During her early childhood, Onyesonwu’s mother raised her apart from the judging eyes of their peers, living a nomadic life in the desert where her daughter could thrive. She eventually married a man that treated Onyesonwu as his own daughter, and the family bravely re-entered society, where Onyesonwu struggled to fit in but was secure in her parents’ love. When sixteen-year-old Onyesonwu’s father dies, her world falls apart, and this is where the book begins. At his funeral, the grief she feels fills her with an unknown power, overflowing from her body into her father’s, causing his chest to begin to rise with breath. This incident sparks even more trouble for Onyesonwu, for she is now seen by the townspeople as worse than Ewu; she’s an Ewu sorceress. In the future Sudan that Onyesonwu lives in, magic is very real, and its practitioners are both revered and feared. As a woman, Onyesonwu struggles to find a place in the male-oriented world of sorcery, but her powers speak for themselves, and she eventually finds both an Ewu companion to share her struggles and a sorcerer who begrudgingly accepts her as an apprentice. As she begins to fully understand her powers, Onyesonwu begins to see that she has an important role to play in both of her peoples’ futures, and with the company of her partner Mwita and her three best friends, she sets out to find a way to stop the war between the Nuru and the Okeke.
Calling this novel complicated is an understatement, and it’s difficult to summarize the plot in a clean, neat way that will pique a reader’s interest and still make sense, but that’s part of its beauty. At the heart of the novel is Onyesonwu’s quest, but this is much more than a quest story. Onyesonwu’s journey would be complicated enough without her powers, which are pretty fantastic: she can shape-shift, taking the form of any animal she sees once she understands its composition. She also has the ability to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead, which makes her a frighteningly powerful warrior. However, the the book would still be incredibly meaningful, thought-provoking, and exciting if it were simply about Onyesonwu’s coming of age as an Ewu girl in an Okeke town. Okorafor does an outstanding job of exploring and expressing Onyesonwu’s slow struggle to accept herself and find a place in her community, which leads her as far as defying her parents to participate in a controversial ancient Okeke ritual, the Eleventh Rite, which involves eleven-year-old girls losing a portion of their clitoris to a knife wielded by one of the town’s circle of wise old women. Okorafor’s portrayal of this integral scene is horrifying; I read it with my legs tightly crossed and my shoulders hunched up to my chin, but it’s beautifully written.
Okorafor’s prose is gorgeous, adopting the tone of an African folktale while braiding the disparate elements of her story together into a tale that is at once modern and ancient, so forward-thinking that it becomes legendary, or some sort of futuristic myth. She writes simply, her carefully chosen words creating a rhythm and steady pace that accompanies Onyesonwu and her clan across the desert. With her forthright descriptions of subtle, complicated emotions, Okorafor presents provocative glimpses of the possible future of Africa and, in turn, of all people.
This is an important novel, both in its superb writing, and in its refreshing, nuanced portrayal of a strong woman of color in a fantasy. Science fiction and fantasy have long neglected those outside of the white male majority, and Okorafor’s work is a welcome departure from the norm. As the child of two Nigerian immigrants, Okorafor’s heritage and frequent trips to her parents’ birthplace are integral to her inspiration, and her evocation of the desert clearly displays her knowledge of the African landscape. Her previously published young adult works, Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, also brilliantly explore the possibilities of a technologically ravaged future Africa. While written for a younger audience, this pair of novels is no less complex than Who Fears Death, and the more traditional science fiction tone of the books is sharp and vivid without sacrificing any of the subtleties of character that we see in Onyesonwu. I can only hope that other authors that aren’t straight white men (not that there’s anything wrong with straight white men or the books they write; I just think they have it a little too easy much of the time) are inspired and encouraged by the beauty of this book, and that publishers will also take note of its success. It’s rare to find a novel that can be described as literary, science fiction and/or fantasy, and a “page-turner” (loath as I am to resort to this cliche, I can’t think of a better way to describe how engrossing the book is) all at once, and when I find one, I can’t stop talking about it. I’ll be recommending this book to anyone who will listen for quite some time.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor