Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okarafor – Journey of the ‘Chosen One’
19th September, 2016
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.
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.
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.
Title : Who Fears Death
Author : Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher : DAW (Kindle copy)
Published : 2010
Language : English
Pages : 386
Rating : 4/5
Have you read Who Fears Death? Do you enjoy diverse fantasy reads? Any recommendations?
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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 Amazon.com 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.