This is the first time I have read any of Nnedi Okorafor’s work, and I suspect that what I’m about to write will not do justice to Who Fears Death. I suspect that I’ve seen only a fraction of what there is to see in the novel, but I’ll try to put my impressions into words nevertheless.
Some distance in the future, when disaster and the weight of centuries have turned our present time into echoes, a girl named Onyesonwu – ‘Who Fears Death’ – is born of violence, her Okeke mother raped by a Nuru man, as part of a concerted effort by the latter tribe to wipe out the former (Okorafor draws parallels in the book with the situation in present-day Sudan). Onyesonwu is thus Ewu, with sand-coloured skin and hair – a social outcast.
And there is something else which marks Onyesonwu out as different: she has powerful juju, of which shapeshifting is merely one of the first manifestations. This normally being the preserve of men, Onyesonwu has to push against multiple barriers in her desire to learn more. But learn she does and, in the course of doing so, discovers that her biological father, Daib, is himself a powerful sorcerer who wishes her dead. Onyesonwu resolves to take her revenge on the Nuru general, and sets out across the desert with a group of friends, and Mwita, the boy she loves – and finds that her reputation has preceded her.
There are many different aspects of Who Fears Death on which one could focus, but the one that stands out to me is the way in which it interrogates a standard literary template – namely, the fantasy quest; I think Okorafor does that as thoroughly as China Miéville did in Perdido Street Station, albeit in a rather different way. The structure of Who Fears Death is superficially that of a quest fantasy – a band of companions crosses a landscape to defeat an antagonist intent on taking over the world of the book; there’s also a prophecy concerning the fate of the world, which could be fulfilled by either Onyesonwu or Daib – but the end result does not play out in the way one might typically expect of that form.
For example, Onyesonwu is not a straightforwardly ‘heroic’ protagonist: she is prone to anger, may at times be hated by her friends, and the use of her powers can result in death and destruction. The protagonist may actually be every bit as dangerous as her enemy. Though Who Fears Death tells of someone overcoming the obstacles to truly become herself, it’s a rite of passage that comes at great cost to Onyesonwu, those close to her, and the wider world.
Something else that particularly struck me about the novel is that Okorafor includes some aspects which would normally drive a fantasy novel straight off the rails for me (such as the exercise of mighty, world-changing magical powers), but which don’t seem so problematic in the context of Who Fears Death. I think there are several reasons why this is so, One is that the sorcery is very well woven into the fictional world; one accepts easily that this is how that world is. Furthermore, all this power does not come without consequence in the book: it may cause great pain, even when used for beneficial purposes; and there is often a price to be paid for the use of magic – and not always paid by Onyesonwu.
So, that’s what I took away most from Who Fears Death. Sampling some of the other online commentary on the book, it seems that others have found a range of things to talk about. To me, that’s a sign of a rich work of fiction; I’d recommend Who Fears Death as a book well worth reading.