Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is brutal. I knew it was going to be emotionally intense (what else can a book be when it deals with rape as a tactic of war, FGM, child soldiers, and ethnic cleansing, among other topics?), but I definitely did not expect the book to kick me in the stomach the number of times it did.

This is the story of Onyesonwu, a woman of mixed race, born as the result of a light-skinned Nuru man raping her dark, Okeke mother to make her pregnant so she would give birth to an Ewu, a child made from violence who will grow live a violent life. People who are Ewu are the color of sand, and are feared and hated by most Okeke people because of their origins and their destinies.

I really liked Onyesonwu as a protagonist. She’s one of the angriest people I’ve read about in fiction, and it came across even more strongly because of her first-person narrative. In a way, her anger was refreshing because she has to deal with so much shit. She’s a child of rape, the people of Jwahir distrust and fear her, and she develops the power of an Eshu, or shapeshifter, and comes into so much power and is able to do incredible stuff, but at the cost of her own health, sanity, and even her life. She has all that to deal with and overcome, but she doesn’t act like a martyr, hiding her emotions so as not to cause anyone else pain and suffering. When she’s angry, everyone better shut up and not got in her way because God help you if you do or say something bigoted or hateful to her or her friends. It’s unnerving, but it makes you sit up and pay attention to her, and there was no point at which she did not have my respect. Furthermore, she’s not only angry – she’s also afraid. Even after she’s seen and experienced her own death, she faces so much pressure to do the right thing, save the right people, and keep her friends and Mwita together and not do stupid stuff.

The events that occur are extremely grim and the author pulls no punches when describing the violence, the emotions, and the sheer disgustingness of all the atrocities that occur. Still, nothing was added solely for the sake of being shocking. All the violence that occurred and described was done so for a reason, and the book is all the more powerful for it. Interestingly enough, the most difficult scene for me to read about was Onyesonwu’s the Eleventh Rite (what the people of Jwahir call clitoridectomy, or FGM). I will talk about that in a separate post as this is getting pretty long, and I want to try and stop posting ridiculously huge blocks of text (I also have the feeling I will fail miserably).

Surprisingly, I really liked Luyu. When we first meet her during the Eleventh Rite, she’s arrogant and boastful, and seemingly cares about no one except herself. But when she accompanies Onyesonwu on her journey, she matures and reveals a core of steel I wasn’t expecting. By the end, I had fallen in love with Luyu’s gutsiness and her carefree nature, tempered by her undying support for Onyesonwu’s mission.

I liked Mwita as well, even if his character was a bit too much intertwined with Onyesonwu’s for my liking. Although he has is own past and his own powers, it’s still never explained why, even though Aro never trained him, he understands so much about juju and the things Onyesonwu finds out that she can do and the experiences she has when she has no freaking clue. Previously, Daib taught him, so I guess he could have picked up some stuff then, but I’m not entirely convinced. Still, it was really nice seeing Mwita and Onyesonwu building a loving relationship, and I actually really liked that the author made their relationship a very sexual one as well. It wasn’t explicit, but it was there, and showed that their connection to each other was a healthy one. Sadly, those kinds of relationships are few and far between in fiction. Sex always has to be some big deal and good sex can only exist within the confines of “twu wuv”. While the story did deal with the issue of female sexuality and imposed expectations on whom one should have sex with and when, the fact that characters in the book had sex, multiple times and with different people, was a complete non-issue. Yay, sex positivity!

Like the author’s previous book, The Shadow Speaker, the world was only minimally sketched out. It’s post-apocalyptic Africa, but I can’t tell what the event was that made the continent become that way. In addition, the book was advertised as more sci-fi than fantasy when it’s really the other way around; there’s a huge amount of magic and practically no science. As a result, I wanted more of the world’s history of how it got to be the way it was before the advent of the Great Book and the post-apocalyptic disaster. There was a nice shout-out though to her previous two books concerning a particular scary, leafy jungle.

This book is currently nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Book, and I think it’s the one of the strongest, if not the strongest, contender (I’ve only read one other of the books nominated, so I’m not really one to say, but whatever). This book is so excellent. The scope is amazing, the subject matter is powerful and handled really well, and Onyesonwu is a character that anyone would fight for. I am so glad I finally read this book, and, for me, it’s pretty much cemented the fact that Nnedi Okorafor is a fantastic writer whose work I will continue to read probably forever.

Everyone: do yourself a favor and read this book. Even if you don’t like speculative fiction. Pick it up. You will not regret it.

Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 6:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

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