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
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.
What I liked:
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.
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.
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.
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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