In her first “adult” fantasy, young adult author Nnedi Okorafor presents a strong-willed young protagonist who must face the horrors of a postapocalyptic Africa that sadly reflects the modern terrors visited upon too many of its peoples.
Onyesonwu (“Who fears death”) is an ewu, a child of rape, in a desert land torn apart by genocide. Her Okeke mother was raped by a Nuru soldier, a soldier who later becomes a general devoted to wiping her mother’s race off the face of the earth. As an ewu, Onye is an outcast and is marked by her sandy colored hair and skin and, later, by her ability to shapeshift and to perform sorcery. As her power grows and she learns to find her place in a world hostile to everything that she is, Onye learns that not only does her father want her dead but that their struggle will either doom her mother’s people to extinction or heal both races and change the world forever.
Who Fears Death is a very unusual book. It has some of the trappings of science fiction but is primarily a good old-fashioned quest fantasy. Onye is “the chosen one“, a symbol of a united a people who must rise to power and confront “the evil one” to save the world. Whether or not this savior will allow herself to be sacrificed is a central conflict to the novel. It is also a thinly veiled exploration of the current crisis in the Africa, exploring the consequences and contexts of genocide, genital mutilation, child soldiers, and cultural violence.
What makes the story so different is its non-European-based setting and the lyrical quality of Okorafor’s prose. The language is simple but powerful, conveying complex meaning within its rhythmic structure. Further, while I have never actually experienced Sudan, the author fully immerses the reader into Onye’s version of it. And this experience rings true throughout the piece. Further, Okorafor’s treatment of magic is refreshing. While there is an underlying system involved, the mechanics are more mystical than scientific, further enhancing the more fluid nature of the prose.
However beautiful, the novel is not without its problems. The dialog is often stilted and unrealistic. For example, the young people of the novel would often refer to having “intercourse” instead of “sex”, a word choice that rings false and draws the reader out of the text. Further, the novel builds steadily to Onye’s final confrontation with her father, a confrontation that is ultimately anticlimactic. The conflict is resolved rather hurriedly and without due tension.
Nevertheless, Who Fears Death is a beautiful novel and a great example of a good author stretching the boundaries of genre and of form.