Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor. Penguin, New York, June 2010, hardcover, $24.95, ISBN 978-0756406172.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bear.
Nnedi Okorafor’s new novel, Who Fears Death, is an unflinching examination of the horrors and joys of life in a postapocalyptic desert that is in the throes of a genocidal war so old that its roots stretch back to myth. In this world, there are two tribes–the Okeke, who are scripturally ordained to be slaves–and the Nuru, who are ordained to be their masters.
Okorafor gives us a technofantastic setting, in which the remnants of a technological society exist alongside powerful magic (no simple charms, these–characters transform into animals and summon up implacable dust storms and raise the newly-dead) and a post-peak-oil economy portrayed in ways that I found very refreshing. Because Okorafor’s societies have not collapsed back to the stone age, but rather have found ways to use technology and science that are compatible with scarcity.
Into this world is born a girl named Onyesonwu–which means, as you may have guessed, “Who fears death?” She is the child of a political rape whose purpose was to force her Okeke mother to bear a mixed-blood child, and as such she is ostracized and marginalized by everyone she meets. But Onyesonwu has the potential to become a powerful sorceress and save her Okeke people from genocide by the dominant Nuru, if she can only convince an elder sorcerer to teach her.
This quest is complicated by the fact that she is female in a deeply misogynistic society, and a half-blood, considered unlucky and unclean by the Okeke villagers. She struggles to become accepted, only to finally understand that she will always be an outcast–but that that status does not remove from her the onus of destiny.
Onyesonwu is a Christ figure–a classical Chosen One–and it is from this authorial choice that the book’s greatest weaknesses emerge. Who Fears Death is a very standard chosen-one quest narrative, and it suffers from a problem I’ve noticed in some of Okorafor’s other work–the protagonist drifts through the world, describing it, but rarely feels fully engaged. Okorafor also leaves a good deal of the characters’ motivations opaque, which sometimes succeeds wildly, and at other times leaves the reader scratching her head and wondering what so-and-so just did that for.
Setting aside the structural infelicities (which are, overall, slight, especially when compared to the greater run of interminable quest fantasies: they are not, overall, known for their tautness of plot), Who Fears Death has strengths galore. Thematically and socially, it’s a richly satisfying novel. Although I wish it had done more to reinvent them, it manages to successfully move the tropes of the quest fantasy to a novel setting, and so imbue them with freshness.
And it is a truly considered look at some truly horrifying topics–political rape, female genital mutilation, genocide, systemic religious oppression–without ever becoming preachy or nihilistic. The mere fact that Okorafor is capable of writing about these topics strongly without becoming paralyzed by them is a testament to her ability as a writer. That she managed to create a captivating novel in the process is nothing short of a major accomplishment.