Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Science fiction / fantasy
Who Fears Death is a magical, post-apocalyptic novel written by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor.
This novel handles heavy themes including weaponised rape, female genital mutilation, and the suppression/control of women. Thematically, it’s pretty heavy-going reading and I would recommend exercising caution if you are likely to get upset by these themes. In saying that, these themes are both confronting yet well-handled throughout the story.
Onyesonwu is an ‘Ewu’ child; a child born of rape. She is shunned by everyone she meets. People despise her because they view her as a symbol of the violence and hatred that is ever-present between the warring Okeke and Nuru people. Ewu children are believed to only be capable of brutality and savagery, and thus they are both feared and hated.
Onye is an intriguing character. She has grown up traveling the desert with her mother, who has not been able to raise her voice above a whisper since the day she was raped by Onye’s biological father, Daib. Daib is a powerful, evil, sorcerer and also the leader of the Nuru warriors who are known for raping, killing, and tormenting the Okeke people.
Most people fear Onye due to her Ewu traits – strange coloured skin and hair, fiery eyes and freckles. Being a social outcast, and a nomad in such a harsh terrain, has meant that Onye has become a tough and angry young girl by the time she and her mother settle down in a small village.
In Onye’s eleventh year, she makes the decision to undergo an initiation ceremony which will mark her as a woman. During the ceremony, she forms a special bond with the other eleven-year-old girls from her village who are also passing through their initiation – Luyu, Binta, and Diti.
Onye also forms a close bond with a mysterious boy called Mwita, who eventually becomes her lover.
Whilst navigating the strange and difficult world of being a teenager in post-apocalyptic Africa, Onye discovers that she can turn herself into an animal, visit the spirit world, and bend time. She commences training with a powerful sorcerer named Aro, and learns that it has been prophesied that she will stop the genocide of the Okeke people.
Onye and her friends Mwita, Luyu, Binta, Diti and Fansai, begin a journey across the desert to put a stop to the evil that is spreading.
When I first started reading this book, I thought I was going to fall completely in love with it – and that it was going to go down as an all time favourite of mine. I found myself immediately swept away by the confronting themes, the complex and interesting characters, the African desert setting, the mystery of magic, and the hatred that festered between the Okeke and Nuru people. Not to mention the African setting and the use of African culture, myths, and legends, was incredibly refreshing.
However, once I got around two thirds of my way through the novel, I felt that the storyline faltered. The characters became more concerned with who was sleeping with who, rather than the impending genocide or the pressing need to upskill their sorcery powers in order to defeat Daib. Not to mention Onye became consistently nasty and in some cases even abusive towards her friends and boyfriend.
The whole ‘chosen one’ storyline was dull, the magic was often a little too easy and convenient, and the climax of the novel came across as very rushed. Most of the action within this novel took place in the last couple of pages.
If you had asked me to review the first two-thirds of this book, I’d probably have given it five stars. Who Fears Death really engaged me at the start, and I could hardly stop thinking about it when I was away from then book.
However, I personally felt that Who Fears Death failed to deliver on the actual plot-line, resorting to cliches and tired old tropes that made the final third of the novel difficult to get through.
While the set-up was fantastic, the actual journey across the desert was boring and the ending was rushed, vague, and unsatisfying. Also the idea that all of the men (besides lover-boy Mitwa and Fansai) were evil and were out to get Onye also got a little old too.
Although this book turned into a bit of a let-down by the end, I do look forward to reading more of Nnedi Okorafor’s writing in the future, as I believe this author has a lot of potential with the right story-line in her hands.