I’ve read a few articles recently about diversity in fantasy, the main point of which is, There is diversity in fantasy, and if you don’t see it then you’re not paying attention. One name that came up repeatedly — and I remembered it from Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe blog tour last year — was Nnedi Okorafor. So I was pleased to spot the beautiful hardcover edition of Who Fears Death on the bookshelf of a coworker, and he was kind enough to lend it to me even though he has no idea whether I treat books well.
Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic Sudan, where a racial group called the Nuru are set on wiping out a racial group called the Okeke. The protagonist, Onyesonwu (her name means “Who fears death?”), is the daughter of an Okeke woman whose village was all slaughtered and who was raped by a Nuru man; as a mixed-race child — what the Nuru and the Okeke call Ewu — she faces discrimination and hostility from the Okeke. As she grows up under the protection of her mother and her kind, affectionate stepfather, Onyesonwu slowly realizes that she is a sorcerer. Her magical training is difficult to begin and difficult to continue, but she must learn to control her powers in order to realize her destiny.
Outcast child with a special destiny is one of those tropes you soon have enough of. I have read a dozen outcast with a special destiny books, and I have loved many of them (hem Harry Pottter hem), but there are times when you get tired of reading about the protagonist who is the most special of all the special girls and boys in Special Land. There were two reasons I didn’t feel that way about Who Fears Death:
- Gender stuff. Y’all know I love my gender stuff. The gendered nature of the magic in this book is unusual and fascinating — Onyesonwu’s power is feared because she is a woman and dire hints are dropped about what might happen if she ever got pregnant while also being a magical person. She struggles to find a teacher because she is a woman, and her determination to be instructed in the use of her powers is one of my favorite things about her as a character. Even better, she’s in a relationship with another Ewu, a boy who failed to become a full sorcerer, and the tension between what he believes about women and magic, and what he knows about her, continues to come up throughout the book.
- The damage stories can do. Is a theme. One of my favorite themes in all the land is the power of stories theme. Everyone in this novel believes in a story called the Great Book, which tells about how the Okeke became too proud and too powerful, and so the goddess Ani brought forth the race called the Nuru and decreed that the Okeke would be their slaves forever. Oh man. I know it’s not everybody’s thing, but I love having the proposed resolution to any problem in any book be to tell a new and better story than the characters in the book have been using so far.
There were times when the book dragged a little, with the characters wandering drearily through the desert and not accomplishing much. There were times when the worldbuilding could have been more precise, and there were times when Onyesonwu was making decisions I didn’t understand and the author didn’t explain. Although the magic system was interesting and cool and I liked watching Onyesonwu become stronger and learn to do more things, the logic of it in important plot moments didn’t always make sense to me.
Y’all, I feel so silly, but I just realized writing this post that these problems? The above ones? Are the exact same problems basically that I had with Akata Witch, and that book is by the same author. I am forgetful but at least I am consistent by God. My other problem of course was that sexual violence upsets me a lot. It was worth it for this because of the complex and fascinating way Okorafor wove gender and gendered violence into the magic of the story she was telling; which is to say, I’d read more by this author but I might not read this book again.
Have a happy Fourth of July if you celebrate the Fourth of July! I will be back next week to chat with you about the Tudors and the Plantagenets. (I know. You are so excited you can’t hardly stand it. HISTORY.)