Review: Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor

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.

(I do.)

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.

SO.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)

14 thoughts on “Review: Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor

  1. Never heard of these books. I like Fantasy in general in spite of these tropes about special boy with special powers type of set up. The world has to be really fantastic and magical though :)

  2. I was reading your review thinking it all sounded quite familiar and have just realised that I’ve read this author too! In fact I think I’ve read this book Is it also called ‘The Shadow Speaker’ or has she written two similar books? I enjoyed The Shadow Speaker because it was so different from anything else I’ve read. I also thought it dealt with a number of interesting themes. Sorry it didn’t quite work for you, but I can understand why the violence was too much.

  3. Love the phrase Special Land. So apt. And what is so amazing to me is how TOTALLY BIZARRE it is that so many of these girls are denizens there. Like Bella. (Stephanie Meyer books.) WHY DO ALL THE BOYS WANT HER? (Although, it could be precisely BECAUSE she has no personality.) And yes, power of stories. I have noticed that this theme is especially emphasized by African writers, OR, is it because we (in the U.S.) only get exposed to a few African writers, who have happened to emphasize that. Have you read anything by Ismael Beah? (Sierra Leone) He tells the most amazing stories ABOUT the power of stories. And about how he got “good” at telling them. One thing he tells about is how he had a blind friend/cousin? while little, and Ismael had to describe everything to him, and it not only taught him HOW to do so, so that his friend/cousin could understand and experience what he described, but also it showed him the importance of good story telling. etc etc. He probably has a TED talk out there somewhere, talking about it. But also, so much of the nonfiction books about some countries in Africa read like post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s interesting that this author chose to use scifi to tell a similar story. But gaaah, I hate reading about gendered violence! Even though it’s everywhere, fiction and non.

    • OH GOD WHY DOES ANYONE EVER WANT BELLA?

      I have never heard of Ismael Beah before, so I’m going to have to try him. For you know how I love stories about the power of stories.

  4. I think I appreciate Who Fears Death more in the rearview mirror than I did while I was actually reading it. The gender stuff felt a bit… I don’t know, heavy-handed when I read it? And I just kept feeling like everything was just a bit too weird. I couldn’t quite stomach it. But when I look back on the book, I find myself wanting to reread it and recommend it to people, and just in general find myself thinking about its uniqueness in a very different light. So clearly it’s done something seriously right.

  5. I have this one! I am glad the gender stuff is so awesome it outweighs the bad. I may read it for this year’s A More Diverse Universe tour (it will be back!). I shall have to read the articles you link to, too.

  6. Now that I have read this one I can safely read your review of it! Huzzah! I’m glad I did because I’m finding myself struggling to talk about it. There’s just so much in the book. But all you said. It’s actually a really standard quest story, but the way Okorafor handles all aspects of it makes it feel new and exciting. ^-^

    And I found myself really liking the desert scenes, but then I look back on it and think that, for me, the eventful things in the desert wouldn’t resonate so much if not for those more dreary scenes in between. They give me more time to get to know these characters as they are now, as adults and the way everything turns out in the end just… hits harder because you can see the little things that drove them in the direction they took. (Even if it is not the most interesting thing to be reading at the time.)

  7. I have tried & given up on 2 or 3 of Nnedi Okorafor’s books, even though on paper I should love them. But somehow I get 50-100 pages and find myself more annoyed/bored than anything else. Which is frustrating!

    I don’t know if I agree with those articles, which I haven’t read, if the idea is there is diversity in fantasy. I’ve found it damn hard to track down fantasy POC authors, and even harder to track down ones I like, much less love (Jemisin!!!). I do find it easier at the fantasy/magical realism intersection or YA fantasy or if I let sci-fi-ish/dystopian in than straight-up adult fantasy, but it’s still not easy. And I don’t usually really like sci-fi or dystopian novels, even if I can admire them.

    Ok, have now read the first article. Of the 11 authors listed (which really isn’t that many) I’ve read 7 but only love 4 (Jemisin, Lord, Hopkinson, & Butler, who are all AfroCaribbean and/or African American). And I’m running out of new-to-me books by those four, lol. At least I have 4 more to try!

    The 2nd article gave me two more authors to try, but once again I’ve read almost all of the names mentioned and I’m not a particularly big fantasy or YA buff (as in, that’s not where most of my reading is concentrated). Which goes to show that the list of names is not nearly long enough to support voracious readers! Compared to the insane amount of white fantasy authors that is.

    I have the same problem with mysteries too though. And really any area of lit: a reader committed to seeking out POC authors has to work harder to find them.

    • I feel like I should clarify that the work is worth it! & that I don’t strike out any more w fantasy POC authors than all of the other new-to-me authors I try: I’m fairly picky.

      Also, I’ve now looked up the 4 authors that I hadn’t heard of before from the first article: 2 only have short stories published and only in anthologies, at least available at my library, rather than collections. 1 has written novels but only one has been published internationally (vs just in India) and it’s not available from my library. And 1 has lots of novels, easily available at my library, but writes scifi rather than fantasy. Of the 4 authors from the second, one’s actually white, one’s books are more middle grade than ya (I can’t think of a middle grade book I’ve read for the first time as an adult & wholeheartedly loved; they’re just not my cup of tea), one has only written one book (meaning even if I love her I won’t have anything to read once I finish it), and one actually has multiple novels available at my library although I can’t tell how many are fantasy because he writes in a lot of genres.

      Sigh. The numbers are against me! ;)

    • Yep, I agree with you. It is harder, and it’s harder still if you’re a picky reader (which I am). I have a hard time finding authors I love full-stop, let alone authors of a particular background in a particular genre. It’s a challenge! And even more it’s a challenge to get access to the books that do exist — often libraries don’t have them.

  8. Pingback: Nnedi Okorafor is a Vengeful God | The Other Side of the Rain

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