Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor #DSFFBookClub

Who Fears Death is not your typical post-apocalyptic, “Chosen One” narrative set in a magical Africa. It’s obviously atypical because in Europe and North America, these kinds of stories simply aren’t published often. That’s not to say that African writers are not writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy prolifically, far from it. It’s just that most western audiences aren’t familiar with such narratives for a variety of reasons, such as lack of easy access to these stories and, in many cases, apathy or rejection of these narratives. 

Nnedi Okorafor serves an important role in American SFF because she writes imaginative stories set in a fantastical Africa that many readers seldom get to see elsewhere. One of her more ambitious works is the World Fantasy Award winning novel Who Fears Death. It gets tons of credit from me for being original and bold in concept. I have never read a Fantasy novel quite like this.

Trigger Warning: rape, graphic violence

Plot overview:

 

The story follows Onyesonwu (whose name means “who fears death”) from adolescence to early adulthood. She lives in a future, post-apocalyptic Sudan with a past shrouded in mystery. The land is barren and sand-swept, yet people have managed to live in harsh and bleak conditions for generations. Two groups of people dominate the narrative and its conflict, the dark-skinned, subservient, and enslaved Okeke and the light-skinned, belligerent Nuru. The Nuru are perpetually at war with the Okeke and wish to eradicate them from the world entirely. One of their strategies is to use weaponized rape to target Okeke bloodlines. Once a child is born out of his horrendous act, the child is branded an “Ewu” and shunned by both groups. Onyesonwu is one such “Ewu.” When she learns about the origin of her birth from her mother at age 11, Onyesenwu resolves herself to one day seek out her biological father and avenge her mother. As she grows into womanhood, Onyesonwu discovers a potent and innate power as a sorcerer and shape-shifter who has an important destiny. What follows is a grand quest across the unforgiving desert to fulfill that destiny.

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What I liked:

 

The Exposition

The first third of the story is terrifying and brutal, but it is also the best and most riveting part. Not everyone may agree with me, however. I flew through the first 150 pages as I learned all about the world Okorafor created but mostly the people who inhabit it and their cultures and customs. I often needed breaks due to intense and graphic scenes of violence and injustice, but I’ll admit these scenes were so terrifyingly memorable, that they’ll stay with me for a long time. 

 

A magical Africa

I can count the number of Sci-fi or Fantasy stories set in Africa with one hand. Two of those stories have been written by Nnedi Okorafor. I have seen enough magical worlds set in Europe and North America for me to hunger for something new. Who Fears Death satiated that hunger with spirit realms, mysterious yet fascinating magic systems, shape-shifting, magical sandstorms, and more in a magical Sudan I had never before seen on the page

 

Onyesonwu’s  relationships

In Okeke culture, it is tradition that girls going into womanhood undergo female circumcision. Even though Onyesenwu is not technically Okeke because she is Ewu, she chooses to undergo the procedures to feel more accepted in her community. Three other girls her age go through it with her: Binta, Luyu, and Diti. These girls become Onyesonwu’s support group throughout her girlhood and into womanhood. They join her on her journey to fulfill her destiny, and during this journey their relationship dynamics prove to be an amusing part of an otherwise bleak and dark story.

Two young men join them on this quest. Her boyfriend and lover Mwita (who is also Ewu) and Fanasi, Diti’s partner. Onyesenwu’s relationship with Mwita was another highlight of the story because even though it has its ups and downs like any relationship, their love for each other endures throughout. No other love interests were introduced, which was refreshing. Onyesenwu is too busy trying to fulfill a prophecy to be distracted by other men. 

 

 

Critique

 

The physical world remains vaguely undefined

While the individual characters, their cultures and traditions were defined well-enough, the physical world they inhabited remained hazy throughout the story. This may have been done intentionally, as these are post-apocalyptic societies attempting to survive in a world that is little more than rolling sand dunes and the rare semi-fertile lands where people settle. I had trouble visualizing this world concretely in my head, though I was never quite sure if it was my imagination or if something was missing from the book that gave it that spark of life I see in other Fantasy stories. 

Straight-forward, unadorned writing

While there isn’t anything technically wrong with the language and writing, it is often dry and clinical. The dialogue can be curt and to the point, with too many instances of the word “said” for my liking. Others may not take issue with the unadorned writing, but I like being moved by both the narrative and the writing style. In the latter half of the novel, I found myself glossing over sentences, which I attributed to the unembellished style of writing. I believe Who Fears Death would work better as an audio book. The story is actually framed as Onyesonwu narrating her life story to someone, so a good voice actor could bring the story to life. 

Final Thoughts

 

If you’ve read countless Fantasy novels and are aching for new experiences, Who Fears Death will not disappoint on that front. It is imaginative, bold, memorable, and an essential read for anyone looking to explore Afrofuturism. However, the story’s narrative arc is not perfect and the world doesn’t always feel fully-realized. Despite its flaws, though, Okorafor’s talent and unique vision are undeniable and the world she has created here has much potential. I will be sure to read the prequel novel, The Book of Phoenix, to continue learning about this world and hopefully unlock some of its mysteries.

 

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Who Fears Death



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37 thoughts on “Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor #DSFFBookClub

  1. Hey Naz! I haven’t read any of Nnedi Okoroafor’s books yet mostly because I’m not a fan of SciFi. I bought “Kabu-Kabu” and I hope to get to it next year. Thanks for this review. I too like adorned writing. This was a well done review man. Kudos.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’m a big fan of Okorafor now, but she only write SFF, so I don’t think she’s for you. Maybe one day she’ll write literary fiction? Who knows. She’s young and has many stories inside of her that have yet to be written.

  2. Having only read Okorafor’s Lagoon, I can say that she is a really creative writer in terms of her imaginative story lines and that she highlights important issues of gender and ethnic oppression. I enjoyed that one very much, and hope to read more of her novels soon! I’ve been glad to see that she’s getting lots of good buzz and reviews lately. Great review, as usual.

    1. Yes, she’s quite brilliant at writing issues of gender and oppression in her stories. That’s part of why I like her so much. I hope she keeps writing for many years and graces us with several more stories in fantastical African countries. The west needs more of them!

  3. Yes! Another sci-fi/fantasy book based in Africa! The only one I have read is The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, which I feel lacks from fully-realized world building as well. I wonder why that is?
    You said that the exposition is “terrifying and brutal”.I don’t do well with graphic violence; in fact, I have been known to throw-up or pass out reading passages that are graphic. Do you think I would survive this? Should I give it a try?

  4. I wonder if that is the reason I am not a science fiction/ fantasy fan? Same old plots about being chosen one and saving the entire world… I recall as a kid I loved reading African fairy tales for kids about Anansi the spider, about how stars were formed and so forth.

    1. Scifi and Fantasy aren’t for everyone, definitely.
      This one felt new enough due to the setting and culture that I didn’t mind so much that it was another “Chosen One” story. There aren’t many of those types of stories about people who aren’t white.

  5. I’ve been hearing great things about this book, and I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it, too! If the exposition is as terrifying as you say, I might not be the best reader for this book. I’m not one for scary stuff.

  6. I’ve only skimmed your post because I found out about this a little late and only bought my copy last week, so I’m behind, but still trying! 🙂

      1. My copy was an oversized paperback and just under 400 pages long, but sheesh, it felt like this book carved out its own niche in my stack. (I was going to say ‘nestled’ but ‘carved’ is so much more appropriate.) This book is so powerful, so cutting, so declarative, so vividly told. I’d been wanting to read it for a long time, and it was your choice of it as a bookclub read which finally nudged it into my hands, but I’m sorry that I’ve finished so much later than expected. Thanks for the encouragement all the same. And it realy is a fantastic tale, one definitely worth discussing!

  7. Great review Naz. Thank you for introducing me to Nnedi. I have Octavia Butler also on my radar which was a reco of yours.

    I agree with the world building part. I like novels that have good world building. And I found it lacking in the book. In the middle I had a confusion whether it was an old world or a new world. Because the tablets/hand held devices (forgot what they were called) suddenly appeared and I felt confused. The circumcision parts a bit brutal for me, but that it just my personal opinion. Nothing wrong in the writing. I did enjoy the book. It was captivating. I thought the end dragged a bit, the fight in the end. Looking forward to reading mre Nnedi

    1. The story is definitely set in a futuristic world, after some terrible calamity wiped out much of civilization. There are remnants of that old civilization when she found the phone/tablet and the machines they used to get water from clouds are futuristic. Oh, I agree about the circumcision part being tough to read, but it happens in some cultures in Africa so I think Nnedi wanted to include that to show that some traditions will remain, even in future societies. But it also showed how horrible these traditions are and that the goal should be to get rid of them. I think. Thankfully Onyesonwu eventually reversed it, which shows her rejection of that tradition.

  8. Fantastic review! Yeah, I also like more stylized writing whereas this one was definitely more straightforward in its delivery. It worked for the intensity of the story (that first third of the book,). A friend also felt the same in regards to the world-building. Though I’m used to a sense of not getting the whole picture of the world in post-apocalyptic fiction if history is fractured too. I have read The Book of Phoenix, which I think would work even better as an audiobook than this one. It does give you a little more of an idea of the world and the technology but it doesn’t really give all the answers either, and I think Okorafor might revisit that universe in the future, so a fair warning for a thoughtful read with possible more questions than answers XD.

    1. I will have to buy a print copy of The Book of Phoenix because the cover is even more gorgeous than Who Fears Death. But I will be sure to try it as an audio book!
      Thanks for the heads up about the prequel. Now I won’t go into it expecting huge revelations or anything. :/

  9. I’ve really wanted to read Nnedi Okorafor for a while now. People in the SFF youtube world keep talking about her a lot. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a bookstore that has this locally. The weaponized rape sounds terrifying though (the non moving narrative might actually help me get through those portions without breaking down).

    1. Oh, I didn’t know she was popular in SFF Booktube! That’s great to hear. 😀
      This book in particular is quite popular, so I hope you find a copy somewhere. At least know you know that this book requires some serious mental fortitude to get through at past. 😡

  10. I have Okorafor’s Zarah the Windseeker checked out from the library right now, and second the recommendation for Akata Witch. I agree, we need more fantasy set in Africa available here! I’ve heard great things about Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian retellings set in Ethiopia, and I’ve enjoyed South African author Cat Hellison’s books, but they aren’t set specifically in Africa.

  11. I’m not usually a sci-fi fan, but I’ve seen this author around a lot lately and, based on what I’ve seen, I’m tempted to give her a try. I think Binti is one of the ones I have on my list. The cover of this one is pretty!

  12. I think we’ve got similar views on this book! Okorafor always has incredible ideas, and then I don’t always love her dialogue and writing quite as much. But I do think you can see her development as a writer — I really liked Lagoon, which is much more recent, and I’ve heard nothing but raves about Binti.

    I’m sure Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is on your radar, but if not: READ THAT. It’s an African-set fantasy/alt-history/steampunk novel, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

    1. Who Fears Death was written 6 years ago! I’ve only read Binti besides this one, so I only got a taste of her writing and world building, but I had no problems with it at all. I do think she will keep growing in her craft, and I’m happy to experience it all along with her.
      Actually, Everfair isn’t on my radar…but it is now! Thanks so much. 😀

  13. Wonderful review! I was saddened I could not participate in this months #DSFFBookClub, but this will stay high on my TBR list. I particularly liked how you broke down your review talking about the relationships and a Magical Sudan. I saw the importance of relationships written into Akata Witch and a very magical Nigeria! The plot sounds intense and how you said… brutal. It’s brutal to name what is happening: using rape as a weapon to oppress. This is happening in our world today where black and brown bodies are used and discarded. Such a powerful parallel to call out and name for not only the sci-fi world, but for our own world.

    I also want to mention I am very excited about the main characters as Ewu. Seeing multiracial/biraical represented in sci-fi / dystopian literature is amazing!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    1. It’s totally fine if you couldn’t join. At least you read an Okorafor novel, so that’s great! A couple of the readers couldn’t finish the book because it was so gruesome. I have strong mental fortitude, so I was able to power through and ultimately enjoy the story and it’s large message, but I definitely understand if it’s too much for others.
      If you do read this book, please steel yourself. It’s not an easy read. It does let up eventually and the ending message is empowering of women in that society, so it ends on a hopeful note.

  14. Fantasy and sci-fi is so hard because if the author spends a ton of time world building and describing the scene, the reading may be arduous. But if they leave out all the descriptions, readers can picture the new world!

  15. Great review, Naz! I do find that the writing is better in the newer books, but I didn’t find it that bad, even having started with the newer books. I loved the setting, I think Okorafor does amazing things with it and it’s one of the things I love most about her works. In this one the social commentary was fantastic but I needed to take several breaks, she really went into the deep and terrifying in this one. Somehow I loved the main character but was disappointed that so much of her life and choices were dictated by men, I would have liked to see her come out of that sooner and maybe more female sorcerers. Can’t wait to see how it’s connected to Book of Phoenix though.

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