Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

I am ashamed to admit that I mostly read fantasy with white protagonists, mostly written by white authors – with the occasional exception. So I thought it was time to delve into literature taking place in the rest of the world, written by non-western writers. And as it turns out, this was absolutely worth it.

by Nnedi Okorafor

publisher: DAW, 2010
ISBN: 0756406692
: 387
copy: paperback

my rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: My life fell apart when I was sixteen.

Onyesonwu is born Ewu, the child of rape between a Nuru man and an Okeke woman. Born out of violence, these cursed people are said to only produce violence themselves. Onyesonwu’s life as an outcast is difficult enough. But at the age of 11, she discovers that she has certain abilities and her greatest wish is to be apprenticed by the town sorcerer. To make the constantly feuding Nurus and Okekes make peace… and take revenge on her biological father.

Ignorant as I was, I expected this book to be hard to get into. That was not the case. Onyesonwu, our first-person narrator, tells her tale an immediately grabbed my attention. The story picks up right away and is nicely paced. There are some flashbacks, action scenes, nicely alternated by calmer chapters that further the characters and their relationships.

As characters go, the whole set in this book is convicingly real. None of them are flawless, especially Onyesonwu. I enjoyed how very human they felt. Onye’s handful of friends all have their own heads – some seem to want only the attention of men, others plot their own revenge, and others may just be confused about pretty much everything. But they are each vibrant and lovable in their way. My weakness for Mwita started soon and stayed strong until the very end. Onye is a heroine whose strenght and relentlessness should be model to other modern protagonists (don’t know why I’m thinking of annoying Kvothe here…).

This story features an interesting magic system that leans more towards the spiritual, mystical than speaking incantations or waving ones hands. It was well executed and had a nice continuity to it. Technology, the second kind of magic in this book, if you want,  is employed quite strangely. If I hadn’t read reviews on this book that mentioned “post-apocalyptic Africa” and used the term science fiction, I would have simply understood it as a fantasy, a parallel Africa, if you want. But there are cell phones mentioned, with GPS, and mp3-players and computers, though they seem to be so rare that Onye has only touched a couple of them. The existence of technology in this universe didn’t bother me per se, but it did feel slightly out of place with the otherwise mystical tone. Setting this story in the far future, when our modern technology is dated and has mostly died out, was not necessary to the story or the plot. It would have worked just as well without any mention of cell phones or video recorders.

What the author probably does best is build athmosphere. The quieter passages don’t get boring because even though there isn’t much action, they are still full of life. Okorafor makes  the colours of the desert seem vibrant, the simple life in Jwahir important in its own way and the spiritual-like magic understandable. The town of Jwahir, the desert and its inhabitants, seemed utterly alive and like a quite inviting place.

The language is at times stunning and at others reads like a debut novel. The author has written YA novels so far, this being her first story aimed at an adult audience. It was not perfect throughout, but pretty damn close. A novel of such strength can be forgiven the occasional slip-up. I got this feeling during scenes that felt like they were supposed to be stronger but didn’t quite succeed. This happens about twice, maybe three times, during the story, so it’s negligible. The vast majority of Okorafor’s writing is powerful, on point and deeply moving.

I enjoyed this book as much for the characters and plot as I did for the themes explored in it. Onyesonwu, being a mixed race child, faces racism and hate very soon. Because her skin is the color of sand and not – like the Okeke, a rich darker brown or, like the Nuru, white – but she’s also a girl, which denies her many privileges granted to a male. Even an Ewu male. Already doubly cursed, Onyesonwu’s home town Jwahir, holds what is called the Eleventh rite, female circumcision. Since this ritual is supposed to take any pleasure a woman might feel during sex away, Onye has her own thoughts on the subject.

Sex is talked about very openly and naturally in this story. Chidlren as young as 11 have already had first sexual experiences and maybe even intercourse. There is no shame in admitting that you enjoy sex or want a certain man’s attention. As strange and foreign the Okeke’s culture seemed to me, as refreshing was the way this subject was treated. Especially since I get the feeling that nowadays, in literature and TV, sex is either ignored or used for shock value in its extremer forms. I thought it wonderful the way it is employed here – natural, a part of human life and while it’s still a private act between two (or more) people, nobody has to be ashamed for it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

There is also themes of war, child soldiers, fate and accepting one’s own mortality – the book and Onyesonwu are aptly named. I would recommend this book to everyone but I feel I should caution you. There are some grittier scenes of rape, female circumcision and violence that may rub more sensitive readers the wrong way. None of it is too graphic or dwelled on too long.

This unique and magical story has definitely conquered my heart, despite or maybe because of its melancholy tone, wonderful characters and vibrant setting.

THE GOOD: Outstanding characters and story-telling, exotic setting, a quite unique book.
THE BAD: Unecessary use of technology/post-apocalyptic setting, sometimes writing not perfectly on point.
THE VERDICT: A wonderful book and quite a page-turner that gave me rich and enjoyable hours spent with amazing characters.

RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent

6 thoughts on “Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

  1. alixheintzman says:

    I just ran across your blog because I was looking for other reviews of Who Fears Death and In the Night Garden–two books I just finished and loved so much I can’t stand it. And you felt the same way! I’m trying to start my own fantasy book reviewing blog (good lord, who knew there were so many?), and I feel like your blog is a good place to search out good next reads.

    Also, I noticed The House of Leaves was on your “coming next” list…That’s probably the single most terrifying and brilliant and obnoxious book I’ve ever read. I look forward to your review!


    • Nadine says:

      Well hello, fellow book blogger! 🙂
      I look forward to reading what you have to say. If you like Valente and Okorafor, I wanna be your friend.

      House of Leaves had to be put aside because I can only get any reading done in 10 minute increments at the moment, and that’s a book that demands serious concentration. But I’m loving it so far. It is totally batshit crazy and I just got to the bits where the pages start looking insane. Thank god it’s weekend and I can finally take that book to bed with me again (it won’t be nearly as dirty as that sounded).


  2. alixheintzman says:

    Enjoy the weekend with Danielewski. I went back and forth between thinking the page layout was a cheap gimmick, and having mild bouts of claustrophobia because it turns out to be a really effective spatial tool. I would also advise NOT googling it and realizing the depth of the rabbit hole. There’s codes and messages and symbols hidden everywhere, which will only make you crazypants.


    • Nadine says:

      I spent last night flipping the pages back and forth because the “footnotes” are now all over the place. Oh yes, and they required me to read the book upside down and from the side and with the help of a mirror… crazypants is the right word.


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