I’ve been on a minority fantasy authors kick recently, and this novel is very much reflective of that. There was an article that talked about all the black fantasy authors, and Nnedi Okorafor just happened to show up, so I figured why not? I can’t remember exactly what I expected, but what I ended up with definitely was not that. I also want to make it known that this review has spoilers. It’s nothing too revealing, but I know that some people are particular about that so I’ve taken the time to at least mark where they begin and end.
Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, who has been branded for life as an Ewu because of the circumstances of her conception. Plagued by society’s view of her, Onye does everything she can to bring honor to her family. Unfortunately, none of that will matter if she cannot stop her biological father from killing her.
What I thought was interesting about this book was the time period that the book is set in. When I began to read it, there was a lot of talk about traditions, deserts, and open markets. So I’ll be the first to admit that I thought that this book was either in modern times, or a little bit before technology. Right up until they started talking about old computers. This book is set in a time of complete computer literacy even in far-flung towns in the Sub-Saharan desert. So, obviously, this book is set in the future, right? It doesn’t always feel that way, but maybe that’s because I’m looking at it from Western perspective.
This novel was a bit of a challenge for me to get through, mainly because I’m used to devouring books in a matter of hours. Who Fears Death was a challenge for me because a lot of what was socially acceptable for Onyesonwu was shocking to me. There is talk of female genital mutilation being a way to honor a girl’s family, but everything in me was wondering why anyone would think that that was a good idea. There were eleven year olds participating in sexual activity, and I wanted to think ‘well at least it’s their choice’, but what kind of choice is that at eleven? Again, not my usual perspective, but who am I to say that this is not the norm in Nnedi Okorafor’s culture? (I doubt it, unless her Nigerian tribe is doing something entirely different from the Nigerians I know). I am not saying that any of that takes away from the novel – it’s ridiculously well written – but these things really shocked me.
But they weren’t what slowed me down.
– Spoiler –
What killed me was the decision to be taught by the guy who had continuously rejected her. This guy was continuously wretched in his rejections, to the point that Onye had to magically beat him up, then bring her dead father back to life for few seconds, just to get him to agree. Now I’m not the best judge of character, but why in the hell would anyone even be bothered with that guy? Her boyfriend, father, great-aunt, and one of the town elders, all tried to ask this guy to teach her – and this is outside of her own attempts – and he didn’t even budge. I understand that there was a reason for not wanting to teach a woman – an Ewu one at that – but he was just ridiculous.
Once I got over that, the rest of the book was smooth sailing. I liked the idea of children being born to fulfill their parents’ wish for them. Yes, I understand that children should be allowed to choose their own path, but, hear me out, in biblical times, children were named for the purpose that they were expected to fill in life. So how is that any different? Onyesonwu was born a sorcerer because her father wanted a powerful child, and a girl because her mother wanted a daughter to avenger her rape. Onye’s mother was born an Eshu because one of her parents wanted her to be a great sorcerer, and she’d been raised in a constant state of travel. Onye’s father, because of the arrogance of his own father, was always destined to be a great general, but his mother wished for him to be a sorcerer who brought change. It’s all connected.
– End Spoilers –
And the connections! I loved every single one of them. Okorafor left no stone unturned in this book. I appreciated the villain reveal, and everything that the reveal of the villain revealed. Once again, the connections!
All in all, social norms aside, Who Fears Death was a very new kind of story – to me. It was very messy in it’s drama, but very clean in the way that it ended. This story is very much informed by real world happenings, considering that the main character is a child of violent rape. However, there’s a major sci-fi/fantasy tint to it. The book is 99% over before we find out that the land Onye spent the whole book traveling used to be the Kingdom of Sudan, so we can go ahead and file this one under dystopian future as well. Still, I loved it, and I look forward to reading Okorafor’s next book, Binti.
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