Take an ancient prophecy, a genocide-fueled war, a post-apocalyptic setting, a reluctant teacher, band of friends, and a powerful heroine with anger management issues and you have Who Fears Death. This was award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor’s first novel for adults after publishing a few YA novels. This novel feels more like a hybrid of the two formats. The romance and coming-of-age aspects of YA with the more mature themes of an adult novel. Okorafor threw every fantasy trope she could into this brutal novel to mixed effect.
Onyesonwu (whose name means ‘Who fears death’) and her mother are desert nomads that come to the secluded town of Jawir in the eastern part of a vast desert of what would be Sudan now. The story is post-apocalyptic taking place what seems to be hundreds of years after a cataclysm destroyed much of the world and turned most of the green lands into deserts. Onye is an Ewu, a mixed-race child of rape denigrated and shunned for her skin color. She is neither dark-skinned like her Okeke mother, nor a golden-skinned Nuru like her rapist monster of a father. Ewu are feared for their violent tendencies and mixed-blood.
On her 11th birthday, Onye endures ritual genital mutilation and sees her father in a vision when she passes out from the pain. Onye has been growing in power as a shapeshifter and spirit walker and with the help of her sorcerer boyfriend Mwiti she seeks out a more powerful local sorcerer named Aro. Through many convolutions, Onye becomes a powerful sorceress and learns of a prophecy that she interprets as being about herself. So, she decides to take on her father, the big bad behind the genocide. Along with Mwiti and four of their very normal friends, the group trek across the wastelands west to engage with Onye’s father head-on and stop the genocide of the Okeke people.
So much happens in this book that it is difficult to summarize. The above description leaves out a lot and there is much to enjoy here if you can dig through the tropes and cliches. Okorafor is a great writer, and highly inventive. I greatly enjoyed her Binti trilogy. However, with her first novel, she takes a kitchen sink approach pulling from multiple other stories. There are elements of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Stand, The Dark Tower, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, this is not a YA novel. The violence is graphic and the description of rape, acts of rape, and violence against women is tough to stomach and prevalent. Genocide committed against the Okeke by the Nuru, ordained by a religious text called the Great Book, is the backdrop and Okorafor does not shy from describing its horrors. However “magic” is set up as both the cause and solution to the terrible acts of violence which serves as a cop-out that marginalizes the real world acts and effect of genocide.
Onye is incredibly powerful except when the story does not call for her to be. She can raise the dead except when it is more dramatic she cannot. She can blind an entire town for generations with a thought and have no remorse, yet when it comes time to destroy a powerful enemy, she relents not wanting to prove the violent tendencies Ewu are feared for. The book is uneven and frustrating at times, with Onye as the source of most of the frustration. She is headstrong, perpetually angry, and naïve. This is expected, the character is only 20 and her friends are around those ages as well. But it does make it a drag for the reader when she keeps getting in trouble because she is headstrong and angry.
The friends that go with her, other than a couple of them, serve no purpose other than adding relationship drama to the months’ long trek across the desert that makes up the last half of the novel. they barely qualify as characters with singular personality points like “is jealous.” and “barely speaks.” Who is sleeping with who, who is angry about it, the place of women in society, all these ideas keep coming up but with no resolution. In the end, it reads like padding for a story that is overly complicated without much really happening for most of it. This is strange since the actual ending confrontation and aftermath is confusing, gross, rushed, and I am not entirely sure what happened or how.
I am not unhappy I read Who Fears Death but it is not one I would read again. I was happy when it was over and came away from it moderately satisfied but wishing it had been better.