Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Sometimes a book can’t be easily classified, and that can be a good thing. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound), her first novel aimed squarely at an adult audience, is one such book. Is it urban fantasy? Well no, it’s set in mostly rural setting, but certainly shares some characteristics. Is it epic fantasy? There is a quest, there is a group undertaking said quest, there are sorcerers and the equivalent of a dark lord, but few who read Who Fears Death would classify it as epic fantasy. Is it World Fantasy? Well, it isn’t the usual Western fantasy with its European and/or American roots – but World Fantasy is a pretty meaningless term and equally unclassifiable. African Fantasy? The setting is decidedly African and the folklore, customs and conflicts are all rooted in Africa, but does any book deserve to be geographically limited? Is it Feminist Fantasy? Issues of the rights of women lie at the heart of this novel, but should it be so pigeon-holed? How about YA? Who Fears Death is a coming-of-age story, full of teen-angst, certainty and uncertainty, though its heavy weight and timelessness appeal equally to adults. Is it near-future science fiction? Many elements of Who Fears Death fit the near-future sci-fi model, but there is magic and sorcery, which can only mean fantasy, right? Is it post-apocalyptic fantasy? Who Fears Death has the feel of taking place after a collapse of modern society as we know it, but even this fails to capture the book and all its facets. Really, I could keep going, but I think the point is made. Who Fears Death is all and none of these classifications, and it’s all the more wonderful for it.

Onyesonwu is a child of rape and violence. Raised in the desert, she is an outsider both literally and racially in the village she and her mother settle in. Her budding magical powers further isolate her as she seeks to apprentice to the village’s sorcerer, who refuses her because she is a woman. Eventually achieving some of the training she needs, Onyesonwu finds herself exiled from her village and on a quest to confront and kill her father and free the enslaved peoples of the Seven Kingdoms.

Who Fears Death is the coming-of-age tale of an alienated, spirited young woman. Onyesonwu fits this trope like a glove, but this is an example of embracing the trope and doing it well. Onyesonwu is completely believable – bitter, angry, confused, certain and uncertain. And once she discovers the true nature of her conception, it drives her to confront and kill her father (who coincidentally does a pretty good imitation of the ‘evil dark lord’ fantasy trope). Rape in fiction is often a controversial and rather lazy means of characterization. However, rape is a historic and present-day reality, and in the case of Africa, a tragically engrained part of war-driven culture. In places like Darfur there are explicit campaigns to rape women and produce ‘lighter-skinned’ offspring. In Who Fears Death, as much as rape is motivation for Onyesonwu, it is also a reflection of this sort of horrible campaign, it’s own form of genocide.

Who Fears Death is also a story of the strength of the human spirit in such trying times. It is a love story between two young lovers – a realistic version with all of the downs included. It’s the story of a group of friends bonded by womanhood rites as they struggle through adolescence. It’s a story of revelation to the tragedy around and the sacrifice made by the most surprising people. It’s a quest to end slavery and to seak revenge. It’s a condemnation of culturally ingrained oppression of women and brutal rites like female circumcision. But ultimately it’s story of hope for the future and faith that all this can be overcome.

As I keep getting at, Who Fears Death is a lot of things, but most importantly, it’s a beautifully written book in a setting can only be considered unique in the world of fantasy. Okorafor’s writing magically reveals the story, effortlessly endearing characters to the reader, and engineering a story that simply must be read. The African feel of Who Fears Death may be what sets it apart from its contemporaries, and it may be the reason many choose to read or pass it by, but the timeless, human story within is the real reason to pick it up.

The bottom line is that Who Fears Death is the chance that readers should take. It celebrates the true diversity of SFF literature and reveals the struggles of a part of the world often overlooked. It’s a timeless, human tale that I highly recommend. 9/10


Tia Nevitt said...

What a great review! Thanks for showing us all how it's done.

Neth said...

@Tia - thanks for the kind words. It wasn't an easy review to write, but it eventually came together (and based on the reaction, better than I thought).

Jo said...

Great review!!! I had this on a list to order for our library, but it's great to read a review like this! Definitely ordering this book. :)

Ryan said...

Neth- Like the others said, great review. This book sounds really interesting, and I am putting on my list of books to buy. It sounds like a rather unique piece of literature and I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the review!

Mihai (Dark Wolf) said...

I love when the fantasy, or better said fiction, opens to new cultures and corners of the world. After all in an age of globalization literature can only submit to the general trend. I love to explore such books and I am looking forward to this book.
Thank you for a wonderful review :)

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I love this review. You can pass by and read my blog. I also talk about books. My last blog entry was aout Nnedi's book and I am glad you have just reviewed it.

Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

Yes - Ken excellent review!

Anonymous said...

Hello, and a nice review you got there.

now I just want to talk about something. as a black person and aspiring SFF writer, I know i want to be seccesful in that area. but there if there is one thing, ONE THING that seperates me from other POC writers is this:

I absoulutly HATE it when people assume that just beacause I write fantasy means that it must be what they call POC fantasy. NO NO NO. in fact, whoever coined that term sould go go go FUCK THEMSELVES to the ends of the earth. beacause Im not a poc writer. I write whatever the fuck I wanna write. say im writing a fantasy like george rr martin. will everybody think that just beacause i put a black boy in there that he will be the first one to go? FUCK NO! if a white boy has as much of a chnce of dying in that type of fantasy then its possible the black boy will die ALL THE SAME. in fact, ill say this right now: DAMN POC FANTASY!!! DAMN IT TO HELL AND BEYOND!!!! if I wanna write a book with a poc protagonist then ill probably FUCKING WRITE IT THEN. and if I want to sell a fantasy book to a publisher it will probably be tor or orbit or maybe fucking pyr AND NOT A PUBLISHER WHO WANTS POC WRITERS AND WHO PROBABLY HAVE BIG ASS SIGNS ON THEIR DOORS SAYING: WHITE WRITERS NEED NOT APPLY. HOW IS THAT BEING FAIR TO EVERONE, EH. ITS LIKE FUCKING RACEBENDING AND THEIR BACKWARDS-ASS APPROACH TO DEALING WITH RACE. JUST A BUNTCH OF WHINERS SCREAMING 'LET THE WHITE MAN SUFFER!!!!!!!!!' AND SAY IF I WERE REVIEWING A BOOK. IM I GOING TO GIVE IT POINTS FOR HAVING POC CHARACTORS RUNNING AROUND ALL OVER THE PLACE? NO NO AND NO. I WOULD RATHER JUDGE IT ON STORY, CHARACTORS, ETC. (I had roundly bashed several books *COUGHjustinelarbalestier's liarCOUGH* because of this).

well, that puts an end to my epic rant. anybody who reads this can comment still. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Neth said...


Interesting rant, though I'm not sure why you felt it belongs here. It doesn't really seem all that relevant to this review.

Though I think your thoughts are shared by others - like N.K. Jemisin who's recent fantasy book has been shelved in the African American Literature section and others like David Anthony Durham, who I believe was criticised a bit for not featuring black characters as his main characters in Acacia.

Ondrej from Nicholas Sparks Books said...

A good example of how can fate deal not so good cards.

Portugal said...

I absoulutely loved this book! The story was thought consuming and the characters were true personalities. I definitely recommend reading it. Its a great read, I could not put it down.

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