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Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okarafor – Journey of the ‘Chosen One’

19th September, 2016

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

A quest by a girl born of violence in search of her biological father who wants her dead. The story is set in post-apocalyptic Sudan where the tribes are ruled by Testament books in spite of their technological advancements.

In Brief :

The tribes of  Nuru and Okeke detest each other. The Nuru have always wanted to wipe out the Okeke by violent acts on women in addition to slaying of the tribesmen. Onyesonwu has lighter coloured hair and skin, because of such an act of violence on her mother by a Nuru man, which brands her as a social outcast or ‘Ewu’. She is brought up by her parents in the most ordinary way possible. When Onyesonwu (her name means ‘Who Fears Death’) starts displaying magical powers such as the ability to shape shift into a bird, and later when her non-biological father dies, the hidden truth about her birth surfaces.

She discovers that her biological father is a sorcerer who wants her dead because she is a girl. Struggling against age old restrictions among women to learn magic, she sets out on a journey with the love of her life, Mwita, and her friends to seek revenge for her mother’s honour and slay her biological father.

What I Liked :

1. The pacing

The pacing is excellent. The book is a phenomenal page turner. Once you start you can’t just stop reading.

2. Writing is tell-not-show

Usually I like books that show a particular scene that tell it. Nnedi uses spare prose and often the writing falls into the bare skeletal structure of ‘he told, she told’ and yet this works so beautifully to aid the story.

3. The fantastical elements

Shape changing abilities, meditative powers and old African magic– this book has everything that tickles your imagination.

4. Diversity in YA Quest fantasy

Nnedi has brilliantly incorporated themes of friendship, love, gender divides in the narrative. This must be my first book with charaters that are diverse in nature presented in a believable way.

5. Originality

The world is completely original. A post-apocalyptic Sudan where beliefs are ruled by Testament books even though technology is advanced well enough – brilliant!

6. Flawed heroine

The heroine, Onyesonwu, is not heeded in society because of being born as a result of rape by a Nuru on her Okeke mother. She has a terrible temper too. I thought this worked really well unlike the mainstream YA where the heroine is an epitome of everything good.

7. Feminist novel

The man who can teach Onyesonwu to control her magical powers refuses to teach her at first because she is a woman. Mwita becomes angry because he failed to be accepted by this master, but Onyesonwu is eventually accepted which is a threat to his masculinity. Nnedi comments on real life practices such as circumcision ceremony, victimisation of those who are raped and acceptance of certain customs by women in order to blend in society, through her characters.

Book Review : Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

What I disliked :

I think I would have loved the novel more if the following points were addressed in the story.

1. Lack of world-building

The story focussed more on dialogues between characters and plot than describing the world it is set in. The story has an interesting mix of old world magic and new world scientific devices. So without the ample world building that was needed I often felt lost.

2. A bit violent

I found the long descriptions of circumcision rituals a bit brutal for my taste. This might be a personal opinion

3. Lengthy climax

The whole book has a steady and fast pace from the first few pages. But the inevitable fight in the end felt a bit stretched out in length. It could have been crisper.

Final Verdict :

The book is not perfect, but the story, pacing and representation is, which makes it one excellent read. The book is a hybrid between a quest narrative of preventing genocide and saving the world, and a YA story of friendship, bullying and teenage love. I would highly recommend the book if you are looking for a fantasy read that mixes old school magic in a dystopian future world. To those who are looking for diverse reads, this is a good one to add to your shelf.

This book was read as part of a read along by #DSFF Club hosted  by Naz (Read Diverse Books). You can check out the club for more recommendations on diverse speculative fiction.

Title : Who Fears Death
Author : Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher : DAW (Kindle copy)
Published : 2010
Language : English
Pages : 386
Rating : 4/5

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Have you read Who Fears Death? Do you enjoy diverse fantasy reads? Any recommendations?

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Who Fears Death

About the Author

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. Her books include Lagoon , Who Fears Death (a World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (a CBS Parallax Award winner) among a few.


This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. I’ve had her book (Phoenix something) on my wishlist for ages but is so hard to find in local bookstores that I’ve been putting it off. But this sounds absolutely lovely. I’m really glad you enjoyed the tell not show aspects, which surprised me quite a bit.

    1. I think Phoenix is a prequel to this. I totally understand. So difficult to get Nnedi books here. And I know you don’t like e-copies either. I liked the tell not show aspect. There is a lot of African traditional magic, shape shifting etc that it would have been too decorative if the prose was not written in that way. I hope you will be able to get a copy soon. Who knows, one day you might get lucky at a used book store?

  2. Great post – I’ve read Akata Witch/What Sunny Saw in the Flames by Okorafor, and I’ll probably read this too, at some point. I thought that Akata Witch was quite good at the worldbuilding – you could try that, because you liked this one 🙂

  3. I’m not familiar with this author, but this sounds like such an intriguing read. I imagine the violence would probably disturb me as well if it’s graphic. That happened to me when I read Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. The book was an incredible read, but it dealt with female circumcision/genital mutilation and was just stomach-turning at times.

    1. I am glad you understand. I was very uncomfortable reading those portions since they are not part of my culture and only something I have heard about from friends. the details were a bit too brutal for my taste

  4. I really enjoyed getting to know Onyesonwu and her friends. And the drama between the girls and the two guys who joined them on their quest. haha, it added some amusement to an otherwise very dark novel.
    I also think this is an important feminist novel, especially with the message it makes in the end. However, the violence and graphic depictions of rape and genital mutilation may put off many women readers. A few of the #DSFFBookClub readers couldn’t finish it because it was graphic and triggering. :/ I’m glad you enjoyed it. I did too and will continue to read Nnedi’s work. Her craft as a writer markedly improves in later novels. She’s got many more stories in store for us, thankfully.

    btw, I love how you can take gorgeous pictures of books on your Kindle!! Do you use a camera or a smartphone to take your pictures? I’m guessing a camera. :]

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the read as well. I hope to read more by Nnedi. Thank you about the pictures – your guess is not entirely right. I take pics both on camera and my phone. The first pic in the post is taken by a camera and the second pic on phone. 🙂

  5. I missed this for the #DSFFBookClub for last month. But I hopefully will be able to read it soon. I enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor’s What Sunny Saw in the Flames and I want to read more o her work! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book!

  6. Great review, Resh! I like the writing as and somehow I found the setting and worldbuilding really good 🙂 But yes it is very violent and I had to take some lenghthy breaks to finish it. Such a contrast to Akata Witch/What Sunny Saw! I wish Onyesonwu would have been less undermined by the male characters, I know it’s representing the struggle, but it’s much more satisfying seeing women overcoming this. Will you be reading ore of Okorafor’s works? I have the prequel here on my shelf.

    1. Oh great! Will you be reading the prequel too? I wont be reading the prequel soon. Her books are a bit expensive here. I have Akata Witch with me. So I will be reading that. I hope that would be enjoyable as well

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