Review: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: July 2011

Then the dream came back to me, every detail. I jumped up on shaky legs. I was halfway down the hallway when I stopped. I went right back to my room and stood at the mirror, staring at the angry bruises on my neck. I sat on the floor and held my head in my hands. The red oval eye belonged to a rapist, my biological father. And he’d just tried to throttle me in my sleep.

***

Onyesonwu is an Ewu—a child of rape, her skin and hair the colour of sand. Others like her are recognized from sight alone, their reputations prone to the same violence and disregard that marks their conception. What makes Onyesonwu different than her kin is that she is a sorceress, one prophesized to end the suffering of the Okeke people—her mother’s people—by the vicious, war-mongering hands of the Nuru tribe.

Who Fears Death is an interesting hybrid of high fantasy concepts set in a post-apocalyptic Africa where, amongst the wreckage of a once-prominent technological civilization, rape and genocide are still the weapons of choice. The Nuru, guided by “the Great Book”, seek to eliminate the Okeke. Onyesonwu, a product of Nuru violence, intends to use her abilities as a sorceress to not only free the Okeke people, but to also rewrite the Great Book and change the future for the remaining Okeke people—regardless of the threat to her well being should the prophesy be fulfilled.

Okorafor has an assured style that, at times, has a perfunctory feel to it that is common in a lot of young adult-focussed literature. However, the concepts and details within are very adult, and not for the weak-hearted. She does not shy away from issues as large as the systematic rape, enslavement and genocide of an entire populace, or as individual as the choice for a young woman to undergo painful and unnecessary circumcision—and the pain associated with that choice as a woman falls in love and is restricted by the damage done to her body.

Structurally, Who Fears Death situates itself in an uncommon position. It manages to evoke a sense of the old world that has never died, and of the recent past that has crumbled into partial obscurity, save for a few artefacts of the supposedly advanced technological culture. The line it walks between science fiction and fantasy is a narrow one, but Okorafor pulls it off with precision of language and a fascinating marriage of cultural conceits—the oppression from and the rewriting of the Great Book being of such prominence.

A strong vein of darkness runs throughout Who Fears Death. At times it can be distressing, but the resulting catharsis legitimizes Onyesonwu’s journey and the lives taken along the way.

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