Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Published: Daw Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Nebula Award, Locus Fantasy Award
“In a post - apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. After years of enslaving the Okeke people, the Nuru tribe has decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke tribe for good. An Okeke woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different — special — she names her child Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient tongue.
From a young age, stubborn, willful Onyesonwu is trouble. It doesn’t take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu — a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half - breed rejected by both tribes.
But Onye is not the average Ewu. As a child, Onye’s singing attracts owls. By the age of eleven, she can change into a vulture. But these amazing abilities are merely the first glimmers of a remarkable and unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities — soon she can manipulate matter and flesh, or travel beyond into the spiritual world. During an inadvertent visit to this other realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would - be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother’s people, she meets with frustrating prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onyesonwu persists.
Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home on a quest that will be perilous in ways that Onyesonwu can not possibly imagine. For this journey will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately to learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death?” ~barnesandnoble.com
I’m reading Who Fears Death for the book club challenge at Calico Reaction. Who Fears Death was actually June’s book, but my review is a little late!
The world of Who Fears Death felt different than many of the fantasy worlds I’ve read about before. It is a post-apocalyptic story, but there are only really vague mentions of what exactly happened to the civilization. The only remains of the previous civilization are in myths, written in the anti-Okeke Great Book, and secret technology hoards. This confused me a little, since there was still some technology in common use, such as portable GPSs. The communities, different ethnicities, and prejudices were very well thought out. I liked how it showed the damage that prejudice could do on a massive scale (genocide) as well as a personal scale. Even Onyesonwu’s closest friends couldn’t quite rid themselves of their ingrained negative ideas about the bi-racial ‘Ewu’, and not adhering to socially accepted gender roles caused difficulty for both men and women.
These deep-seated prejudices—Nuru against Okeke, men against women, everyone against the Ewu—gave rise to a dangerous and violent world. The content of the book is difficult at times, as there are descriptions of rape, murder, female circumcision, and so forth. I don’t think the content is gratuitous, and it is definitely not eroticized, but it is disturbing enough to merit a warning.
The system of magic in Who Fears Death was more fantastical than many I’ve seen. There are shape-changing Eshu, the spirit-world ‘wilderness’, spirit dragons and enigmatic traveling Alusi. While there was some structure to the system, mostly seen through Onyesonwu’s training, the majority of precepts of magic are left vague and unexplained. For instance, no one ever really explains what determines whether you pass the initiation to become a sorcerer or not. All the same, it is magic, so I don’t mind a little mystery.
More problematically, the limits of the magic are never really defined. There’s a general sense that there are consequences to working magic, but they seem almost random. For instance, healing someone could have terrible physical consequences for Onye, but killing a lot of people might not bother her at all. As a result, it was never really clear what situations could or couldn’t be solved by magic. I think a little more explanation on that count could have given the story a better feeling of internal consistency. What’s more, a better understanding of what can and can’t ordinarily be accomplished by magic could have increased the sense of risk in Onyesonwu’s high stakes quest.
The stakes are the survival of the Okeke people, who are facing genocide at the hands of the Nuru. The general story is of Onyesonwu’s coming of age and her prophesied quest to rewrite the relationship between the Nuru and Okeke people. Onye set out with her closest friends and her lover to meet her destiny. I thought that the questing part of the story leaned a little too much on the prophecy. None of the characters really planned out how Onyesonwu could succeed, they just assumed that the future would happen as it was foretold. The major decision they made was to set out traveling. Past that, they seemed to simply wait for events to unfold on their own, content that Onyesonwu would fulfill her destiny.
I think that the real strength of Okorafor’s writing is in the descriptions of daily life, rather than the great deeds and magical upheavals. I really enjoyed the story of Onyesonwu’s early life, the time when she was forging friendships and relationships, learning magic, and coping with her family’s history and current circumstances. In contrast, the conclusion of the book felt rushed and lacked clarity. I think that this was to maintain the mystery of the magic, but it just left me confused as to what exactly had happened.
I had mixed feelings about the characters in Who Fears Death. Onyesonwu is an incredibly powerful, yet flawed, protagonist. The combination of extreme magical power and her quick-tempered recklessness sometimes leads her to make highly questionable moral choices. I think that this would be a very different story from someone else’s point of view—a story where Onyesonwu is the unpredictable, vindictive, murderous villainess. However, even though I sometimes disagreed with Onyesonwu’s decisions and actions, I still thought she had a fascinating personality.
I particularly liked the portrayal of her relationship with Mwita. They love each other, but that doesn’t mean that they are blind to each other’s faults. Mwita’s bitterness at their relationship’s inversion of traditional gender roles (he’s the healer, she’s the sorcerer) frustrates Onye. On the other hand, Onye’s impetuousness, haphazard training, and general lack of foresight often annoy Mwita. It was refreshing to read about a romantic relationship where the lovers didn’t spend all of their time drowning in mutual adoration. Mwita and Onye’s relationship requires effort and constant communication, in addition to love, in order to thrive.
Their traveling companions, Onyesonwu’s female friends and one girl’s boyfriend, seem to lack the depth of the main characters. I would have been interested to see more of their companions, but it seemed as though they were each primarily defined by their relationship with sex. One of the girls was molested as a child, one had the libido ‘of a man’, and the couple traveling was described in terms of their relationship troubles. The other side characters, such as Onye’s parents, the town elders, the traveling Vah people, and the other sorcerers, enriched the world the characters inhabited.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Who Fears Death was an interesting combination of a post-apocalypse setting and a magic-filled fantasy. However, as a warning, it does contain some disturbing descriptions of rape, murder, and female circumcision. I enjoyed the flashy magic, though I was a little bothered by the vagueness of its limits. The story itself is nothing out of the ordinary—predestined hero goes on a quest to save her people—but the deeply flawed main characters and the desert society were unusual and interesting. I liked that the romantic relationship between Mwita and Onyesonwu was not one of constant adoration, but a partnership that required effort on both of their parts for its continued success. The other side characters were not nearly as deeply characterized, but they were still interesting additions to the story. I tended to prefer the segments about daily life to the pivotal magic scenes, since the latter seemed to often lose a little bit in terms of clarity. Overall, it is a fantasy story that may feel very familiar, but the setting, the magic, and the characters raise it out of the ordinary.