Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
No spoilers. (Promise.)
I've read and reviewed one of Nnedi Okorafor's other books before: her short sci-fi novel Lagoon about mystical aliens touching down in Nigeria. I was enraptured by her storytelling, and when I found out she had other books--many of them bestsellers--I added all of them to my wishlist, and had the opportunity to purchase Who Fears Death thanks to a Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas. I had high expectations for Who Fears Death because of everything I'd heard, both about it and about Okorafor herself.
And I was not disappointed.
It's rare--or at least, rare for me in my little corner of America--to find popular SFF books that have a post-apocalyptic or fantasy setting outside of the U.S., or even Europe. So the setting itself of a fantastical, post-apocalyptic Africa was intriguing to me. I wish Okorafor had gone into just what, exactly the apocalypse was that completely reshaped the world and set up whole new religions and ethnicities, or even just the history of the world in general. We're given the religious version that everyone is told growing up and that main character Onye has little respect for, but not a definitive This is what happened, and this is why the world works this way now. But that's probably just the history major in me.
The magic system used is very unique and interesting. It's a soft magic system, which is the kind that basically allows the author to make it up as they go along (kind of like Tolkien or Game of Thrones), compared to the hard magic system where the rules are explained and strictly adhered to (i.e. Avatar: the Last Airbender and Fullmetal Alchemist). But while Onye and the other sorcerers' powers are many and varied, there's no deux ex machina that goes on. She still has limitations, especially in the beginning when she has no control.
The story itself starts out pretty slow. Onye is obviously very special and eventually has to set out to topple the unjust system of oppression and war that her mother's people is subjected to. But she and her friends don't start their journey until halfway through the book. The first half is Onye coming to terms with who and what she is (for the most part, at least), worldbuilding, and describing the struggles and conflicts between Onye, her mother, and everyone around them. So even though the pacing of the overarching story is very slow, there's still a lot that goes on that kept me turning the pages.
Oh, and in case you didn't get the hint from the book description, this story is not something to flippantly give to children. More on this later.
There are a lot of characters here. While the entire story is told in first person point of view by Onye, she runs into a lot of characters. There's her beau, Mwita, another sorcerer who knows more about magic but isn't as powerful as she is and functions as team healer. She has three best girlfriends, her mentors, her mother, her stepfather, and of course, her rapist father. Who is a real piece of work. Just...wow.
All of these characters are deeply flawed. Onye has some severe anger issues that are a direct result of how horribly her society treats her and her mother, leading her to do several things that she almost immediately regrets. The friends she sets out on her journey with turn out to be less than ideal travel companions, given that half of them abandon the quest out of fear. (Though the one that sticks around, while not magical in any way, is a total badass.) Mwita himself has some inferiority complexes. I mentioned that he's not as powerful as Onye is, and while it's clear that these two characters deeply love and go to great lengths for each other, Mwita has some sexist views that come out every now and then. He believes that he should be the sorcerer while Onye hangs back as the healer. Needless to say, this is a bit of a conflict between the two of them.
In addition to expert storytelling, captivating worldbuilding, and engaging characters, Okorafor also weaves in several themes throughout this story. And when I say several, I mean all of them. I thought I was impressed by how many topics she was able to cover in Lagoon, but that's nothing compared to when she has an extra three hundred pages to play around with. Who Fears Death unflinchingly talks about rape, war, slavery, genital mutilation, misogyny, racism, religion and tradition used as tools of oppression, love, hope, death, and probably a dozen others that I missed in my first reading or just can't think of right now.
Bottom line, this is an amazing book. It is a bold, beautiful story that deserves to be on bookshelves everywhere.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!