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Book Review

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Who Fears Death (Hardback)


Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Harper Voyager
RRP: £12.99
ISBN: 978 0 00 828870 9
Publication Date: 22 March 2018

Following her rape, a desperate woman walks into the desert to die. Fate has other plans for her and she gives birth to a child, a girl with hair and skin the colour of the sands. She names the child Onyesonwu, which means "who fears death"…

Who Fears Death (2017. 387 pages) is a new science fantasy novel by Nnedi Okorafor. The book won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was a 2011 Tiptree Honor Book and was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award.

As Onye reaches her teenage years her mother moves them to Jwahir, where her differences are highlighted to her daily. As an Ewu, a child born of violence, it is traditionally felt that she will become a violent adult. In truth, her actions do little to disabuse this notion as Onye spends her time being permanently angry.

As she grows she starts to develop powers, the ability to warp her body into that of animals. She is both afraid and intrigued by her new abilities. Knowing that the only person that can help her is the local magician she forces him to help her, unknowingly setting of a chain of events which may end in her death.

I did have a few issues with the novel. Firstly, the PR blurb says that the author has drawn on her own Nigerian background for the book, which sounds like it may have something new and novel to offer. It was surprising just how traditional the plot was. We have discussed Joseph Campbell's work in original myths and the book follows one of the most common western structures. Onye is a child born in low station against a backdrop of strife, she meets a wizard/shaman who awakens her full magical potential before she goes on a quest to beat the big bad and fulfil her destiny. You couldn’t really get more traditional, at least she doesn’t turn to the dark side.

Secondly, the book happens in the Sudan. The book jacket states that the story take place in a post-apocalyptic world, but there is very little in the world building which would lead you to this conclusion. The world contains some technology but is very rarely referenced. Circumcisions are performed by scalpel rather than laser knife, computers exist, but its very nebulous just how much technology is being used.

Lastly, I found the character of Onye difficult to get along with. She certainly has reasons to be angry, her mother's rape, her designation of Ewu, a child of rape, which forever sets her apart from society. Added to this she lives in a highly misogynistic society where often women are treated like objects; playthings for men. In general, and at best, they are second class citizens in their own society. So, yes, she has a lot of anger and that anger does provide the driving force for her to complete her destiny, but with few shades of light and dark her personality remains monochromatic.

There was a lot the book alluded to but did not explore. The world myth is that the darker skinned Okeke were punished for their technological creativity. The goddess Ani sends down the much lighter skinned Nuru, to punish and enslave them. As an Okeke, Onye fights against her people’s subjugation as well as her own personal oppression. But we don’t really get an answer to how a technological world transformed into one which allows magic to exist.

Indubitably this is a book aimed at adults and its exploration of the forces which drive genocide, or the examination of rape and female circumcision should make for uncomfortable reading. As well as the potentially dark themes, it is also a book about female emancipation and power under almost impossible ecological and cultural forces.

Not a bad novel, but one which could have used more shade.


Charles Packer

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