[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest reviewer Jason Sanford!]
REVIEW SUMMARY: An emotionally gripping fantasy featuring one of the most complex literary characters of recent years. Well worth reading. The novel will definitely make the final ballot of the year’s genre awards.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In post-apocalyptic Africa, Onyesonwu—a gifted child conceived by a violent rape—struggles to both understand her own life and to save her people from genocide.
PROS: Wonderfully written, full of emotion, with complex characters readers will relate to. The story is also fast paced with one of the best endings I’ve read this year.
CONS: An extremely violent and disturbing story, with scenes of sexual assault and cruelty which can leave one in tears.
BOTTOM LINE: Flat out one of the best fantasy novels of the year.
For as long as there have been storytellers there have been stories about stories. Forget any belief in the newfangledness of post-modernism and intertextuality and the mise en abyme technique of stories within stories—The Odyssey featured all that millennia ago, as do other classic tales ranging from One Thousand and One Nights to Hamlet.
Yes, stories within stories are common. Far less common are stories showing the double-edged sword of storytelling. Stories describing how the very act of storytelling can both bring out the best in humanity and take us down nightmarish roads. But that’s exactly what we discover in Nnedi Okorafor’s amazing novel Who Fears Death.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Africa of the near future, Okorafor’s first novel for adults is the story of Onyesonwu, a mixed-tribe child conceived when a Nuru man raped Onyesonwu’s Okeke mother. But this act of violence doesn’t exist only within its own awful self—it’s also part of a larger genocide taking place against all Okeke people. For in the world of Who Fears Death the so-called “Great Book” has stated that the Okeke people are responsible for the old world being destroyed. As punishment, the Okeke are kept as the Nuru’s slaves and face the constant risk of total extermination.
With a freckled face, and skin and hair the color of sand, Onyesonwu is an outsider from both the Nuru and Okeke peoples. But the violence which begat Onyesonwu also gave her amazing magical abilities. Her mother sees this magic as the chance to avenge the evil of her rape—which is part of why she named her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” Other Okeke see Onyesonwu as the mystical savior who might lift them out of genocide—or they would see her as such if they could get past the heresy of a girl practicing magic.
For just as the Great Book dictates the relationship between the Nuru and Okeke peoples, so does that story and other tales dictate how Onyesonwu is treated. As a lowly girl. As a child of rape. As a problem child who refuses to follow the cultural norms laid down so long ago. Onyesonwu is also a living story. A constant reminder to others that their orderly lives are not as secure as they might believe. That horrible deeds and events wait just beyond the horizon of each and every life.
As might be expected from the description of Who Fears Death, Okorafor’s novel is not for the faint of heart. Violence and sexual assault and outright evil are described in blunt terms (Okorafor was inspired to write the novel after reading about the weaponization of rape in places like the Sudan). But despite the subject matter, Okorafor’s writing is never voyeuristic. Disturbing at times, yes. But never does Okorafor disturb without good cause.
And equally as important, the novel is extremely engaging with characters readers can relate to on a very personal level. In Onyesonwu herself readers will discover one of the most complex literary characters of recent years. Within the span of a few paragraphs Onyesonwu can go from being loving to insightful to angry, selfish, noble, stubborn, and vengeful before again returning to love, all of which makes her feel oh so truly human. And the world of Who Fears Death is also fascinating, with the high technology of water-condensation collectors and computers existing alongside both traditional village-based lives and the greater magical realm which interacts with Onyesonwu.
Like many classic stories, Who Fears Death is much more than it seems. Parts of the novel feel like a fantasy coming of age tale. But the novel also constantly shifts—just when readers believe this is a bildungsroman the novel embarks into the familiar fantasy trope of a small band questing to save the world. But even this Lords of the Rings echo is misleading, for in the end their quest isn’t so much against an external threat as against a very internal one.
For in many ways the novel’s ultimate quest is not to battle a person or thing, although there is an evil man doing great harm to Onyesonwu’s world. Instead, the quest at the heart of Who Fears Death is against the very story these characters are trapped in.
Which returns us to the Great Book, which is the living history that curses both Onyesonwu and the Okeke people. As has often been stated, history’s the story we tell ourselves about who we are. And without spoiling this novel’s astounding ending, it is this sense of telling—and the constant writing and rewriting of all our stories—which gives this novel so much power.
Stories within stories. And the power stories have to make humans mistreat each other—and the power stories have to bring us together.
Okorafor’s novel has been widely praised by critics and readers and for once the general consensus is absolutely correct. Who Fears Death will likely make the major genre award ballots. I know it will be among my award picks for the best novel of the year.
But more than that, this is a story which will remain with me. Which will continue to sing in me like only a few books have ever done. I highly recommend reading this novel.
And there’s no better story a reviewer can tell than that.