I have a lot of thoughts about this book because I found it both enchanting and frustrating.
Let’s start with the plot: We’re somewhere in Africa. The Nuru, a lighter skinned people, and the Okeke, a darker skinned people, are enemies. The Nuru are on course to exterminate the Okeke, following (what they think is) the guidance written in The Great Book. One Okeke woman is raped by a really terrible Nuru during a raping/pillaging raid. She escapes, giving birth in the desert to a baby girl whom she names Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?”
Onyesonwu is an Ewu: a product of rape/violence and therefore an outcast. Ewu are believed to be doomed to commit violence due to their origins. However, Onyesonwu is different even among Ewu. She has magical gifts–despite being female. There’s even a prophecy that may or may not relate to her. Eventually she convinces a shaman type in her area to train her as a sorcerer, gathers her group of friends (and lover/partner) and journeys West to stop the genocide of the Okeke. Shape-shifting, teleportation, and other mystical skills are central to her skills and training.
It amounts to a trope we all know: young inexperienced protagonist turns out to be the Chosen One, finds a Teacher, hears a Prophecy, undergoes Training, goes on a Quest. So far, so good.
Ok, but first: although this is marketed as (and is, in fact) “post-apocalyptic”, it doesn’t really matter that this is set in some distant future. The apocalypse is not a main character; we certainly aren’t told what caused it, and it doesn’t feature prominently. So if you’re expecting The Road II: Africa or World War Z: Z for Zanzibar, this is not it.
Okorafor has a wonderful imagination. I loved the main character with her flaws and strengths and passions. I loved that Okorafor managed to write a heavy-handed story, unflinchingly examining rape as a weapon of war and female genital mutilation, and somehow make it … not heavy-handed. That’s some skill. The descriptions of rape and war are brutal, but that’s how rape and war are. They are brutal.
Okorafor took that brutality and laid it over a magical world brimming with humor and love and imagination and friendship and desire. The descriptions of magic and sorcery are vivid and wonderful; Onyesonwu’s teenage angst and worry and sorrow and adult-sized burden are keenly felt. I thought some of the writing veered into telling-not-showing, particularly the relationship bits–but it is, after all, a story about a teenage sorceress so of course she’d have teenage-y relationships and the rest was well-done, so I buy it.
However, I think it kind of lost the thread somewhere around the 3/4 mark.
Onyesonwu has a vast array of magic powers, everything from raising the dead to healing her friends’ circumcisions. There seem to be no limits to what she could learn to do, if she only had the discipline and time, and after a while these felt a little deus ex machina. This didn’t quite take me out of the story, but it did make me pause, like, oh, of course she can raise the dead, how convenient.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Stop reading now if you don’t want to know the ending!
The most egregious example of this is the ending/epilogue. The last 30 pages or so seemed rushed and confused, like she had this whole great world built, and friendships formed, and all these things to say about FGM and genocide and women’s rights and religion and war. And all these enormous, systemic, human-condition problems were solved by…an almost literal wave of a magic wand. Everything is apparently solved by magic that Onyesonwu herself didn’t understand but was a conduit for? Oh, okay.
The book is pretty clear in the first sections, telling (I thought, anyway) readers that evil doesn’t come from religion, but from evil people. But then in the end, Onyesonwu doesn’t kill the bad guy, but she does magically change the religious text so that…people eventually re-read the book and decide that they were wrong all along and … then all the women get pregnant and all the men die and … the genocide doesn’t happen, or something? And then she dies as prophesied, but no, jk, she doesn’t really die she just changes spirit-shape? But no, she totally does die because prophecy?
Honestly, I have no idea. She lost me.
It just felt like a hastily-edited cop out, which was frustrating after 300 pages of nuanced world- and relationship-building and some very smart prose.
THAT SAID, this was still a great read. I looked forward to seeing where Okorafor’s imagination would take me next, and it was wonderful to read such a vibrant fantasy world, set in Africa, dealing with brutal present-day issues with heart and imagination. I’ll be reading the prequel. 3.5 stars from me just because the ending was so frustrating, but I’ll round up because it made my last work trip much more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.