Who Fears Death
by Nnedi Okorafor
Review by Cathy Green
DAW Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780756406172
Date: 01 June 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Who Fears Death, opens with Onyesonwu, whose name translates as the title of the book, explaining the unfortunate circumstance of her conception. The setting is a post apocalyptic Africa, although there is never any explanation of the nature of the apocalypse. Onyesonwu's mother was a member of a minority tribe, the Okeke. Her village was attacked and overrun by the majority group the Nuru. Onyesonwu's mother Najeeba and other women were taken out into the wilderness and raped repeatedly. When Najeeba came back to the village, her husband would no longer have anything to do with her, so she walked through the desert for six years until she came to the town of Jwahir, giving birth to Onyesonwu along the way. Because of Onyesonwu's unusual coloring, it is obvious that she is ewu, a child of rape, and she and her mother are ostracized. Despite their past, Najeeba finds a man who loves her and has no problem marrying her and accepting Onyesonwu.
Onyesonwu has a difficult childhood, being shunned because of her origin and later because she appears to have magic powers. She occasionally wakes up naked in trees and when her beloved father dies, in her grief she briefly causes him to breathe, which terrifies the rest of the town. She also experiences threatening dreams, which turn out to come from her biological father, Daib, a powerful sorcerer and general. She also meets and falls in love with another ewu, a boy named Mwita. Mwita is studying with the town sorcerer, Aro, and explains to Onyesonwu that she has magic powers and that the reason she woke up in a tree was because she's eshu, a shape-shifter.
Onyesonwu spends several years unsuccessfully trying to convince Aro to take her on as an apprentice, because he won't teach girls. After the incident involving the temporary reanimation of her father's corpse, and another in which she gets angry and nearly kills him, Aro agrees to take her on as a student, in part for the safety of the village, since if she doesn't learn to control her powers, something is likely to go spectacularly wrong. Onyesonwu has to pass a test, a sort of vision quest, in order to be able to learn the Great Mystic Points. The test involves experiencing death. Onyesonwu experiences the death of a woman who was stoned to death. Later she learns that this will be her death. Ultimately, Onyesonwu leaves Jwahir with several friends and wanders from town to town and in the desert as her powers grow and she meets people from other tribes with other forms of magic and gradually approaches the city where she will fulfill the prophecy and meet her death hopefully defeating Daib and saving the Okeke in the process.
Okorafor does not shy away from controversial themes. A major plot point in the novel is the use of weaponized rape, based in part on current situation in the Sudan and Congo The Nuru are using rape to destroy the Okeke. Aside from destroying families as the raped women are no longer accepted by their husbands and villages and forced into exile, the ewu children are also an attack on the Okeke, as the children are not considered properly Okeke and depending on how inheritance is handled, their biological rapist fathers could use the children to make claims on Okeke land. And because the rapes permanently “taint” the women and either make them unmarriageable or call into question the status of all subsequent children, rape as a weapon can also be seen as a form of genocide.
Another controversial subject dealt with in the book is female circumcision/female genital mutilation. Despite the fact that it is not required of girls in Jwahir and that her parents are against the practice, Onyesonwu sneaks out of the house at night to have the ritual done. Readers may find it hard to understand why Onyesonwu, Diti, Binta and Luyu would voluntarily undergo complete clitoridectomies. Particularly in Onyesonwu's case, one can see why she would want to undergo the Eleventh Rite as it is known in Jwahir. She has been outcast and ostracized her entire life and the ritual could potentially give her a level of respectability in the town. Also, Onyesonwu, Diti, Binta and Luyu are considered bonded by the ritual, so by undergoing the ritual, Onyesonwu has gone from being shunned by everyone to having three friends for life. Okorafor also makes very clear that the four girls have in no way given informed consent, since they have no idea that they are giving up the ability to feel sexual pleasure. Also, it is revealed later in the novel that the scalpel used for the ritual had been enchanted by the sorcerer Aro to make sure that the girls could not enjoy and would in fact feel discomfort in sexual activity until the performance of the marriage ritual. Okorafor makes it very clear that the ritual is all about men controlling and suppressing women's sexual desires. And once Onyesonwu understands what the ritual did, she is furious and seeks a way to reverse the process.
Okorafor also makes the interesting choice of devoting very few pages to Onyesonwu's training once Aro accepts her as a pupil. The reader might expect a fantasy novel to have a significant number of pages to be depicting Onyesonwu's training, but in Who Fears Death the training is mostly skipped over and suddenly Onyesonwu is an adult and preparing to go on her quest with Mwiti, Diti, Binta, and Luyu as her companions, as well as Diti, Binta and Luyu's boyfriends.
Who Fears Death is a complex novel that can be read as both a fantasy and a science fiction novel. The setting is Northern Africa, but after some sort of disaster that is not specified. At one point during her wanderings Onyesonwu comes across a cave full of computers and people have laser knives and certain buildings have what appears to be embedded nanotechnology. This would suggest that we are reading a dystopian future SF novel. However, there are people who are sorcerers like Onyesonwu who can do things like shapeshift, make themselves invisible, travel inside a whirlwind and transport themselves from place to place nearly instantaneously by thinking about it. These things, combined with Onyesonwu's quest, suggest an epic fantasy.
Or the reader could decide that the magic isn't magic at all but some form of nanotechnology people have forgotten they are carrying in their bodies and which not everyone is able to control. Also, given that Onyesonwu wanders in the desert with people who could be considered her disciples, preaches peace, warns of coming disaster and seems doomed to a sacrificial death, one could view her as a Christ figure. It is no surprise that this rich, complex novel is a World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel. Highly recommended.