Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Published: June 1st 2010 by Daw Hardcover 
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Goodreads Summary: In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.


I read Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor as part of a little challenge I imposed to myself. I wanted to discover fantasy books written by black fantasy author because I knew very few. I explain in more details what propelled me to do it and how I was going to do it in this post: Black History Month Is Coming Up A Month Early For Me.

Anyway, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. What are the best words to describe it? Painfully Realistic. Breathtaking. Engrossing.

Mrs Okorafor won the World Fantasy Award For Best Novel for this work and I can only concur with the judges’ decision.

The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic Africa. Lead by the powerful sorcerer Daib, the light-skinned Nuru are on a “heavenly” mission to enslave and eradicate the dark-skinned Okeke.

The book’s main character, Onyewosu, was not meant to have an easy life because she was an Ewu, a child born from the rape of her Okeke mother by a Nuru man.

Ewus are considered as vile and evil, that’s why except for her mother and stepfather who’ve always supported her, Onyewusu has been rejected by everybody around her.  Onye is an outcast not only because of her origin but also due to the fact that she has magical powers that for a good chunk of the story she can’t quite control or understand.

Okorafor’s book could have easily ended up being a manual of overused fantasy trope. Right from the very first page the reader understand that the heroine is the Chosen One, the only person that can bring light in a world overwhelmed by darkness. In order to do that, she will have to destroy her father, the Nuru spiritual leader Daib. Yeah, the Evil Sorcerer is the man that raped her mother.

Just like Harry in Harry Potter, there’s never any mystery about what Onyewosu is and what she’ll eventually have to do. Similarly to any hero who at some point must face a powerful opponent in their adventure, Onyewosu will be taught magic by an ancient and knowledgeable wizard.

Even though, most people fear and reject her because she’s Ewu, she has a group of friends and even a boyfriend/soulmate, Mwita. That boyfriend who’s truly more like her husband is also a Ewu and he knows a lot about the supernatural.

What make Who Fears Death stand out for me is that it bends and distorts stereotypes.
The fact that they are Chosen One is the only thing that Okorafor’s heroine and Harry Potter or even a Luke Skywalker have in common.

Onyewusu isn’t admired because of her capacity or her past, she never had a peaceful life and nobody is eager to help her. The main character isn’t your usual hero. She goes through so much suffering, so much trouble that it’s difficult not to root for her.

There’s no wise Yoda, soft Dumbledore and faithful BFFE in the world Nnedi created.
At first, Aro the man who will eventually become her master doesn’t want to teach her because she’s Ewu and a woman. Yeah, women aren’t considered as more than childbearer and bed companion in the society in which Onyewusu lives.  

For a very long time, he churned her as if she was a vulgar worm who didn’t deserve his respect. If it wasn’t because Onyewusu was extremely stubborn and tenacious, he would have never accepted to take her as his pupil.

The friends she makes do love her, but they’re also fearful and even a little distrustful of her. I liked the dynamic between the heroine and her friends. I thought it was realistic. I could easily picture myself have some of the girly, gossipy conversation they had (does this sentence even makes sense? I’m not sure).

I also loved Mwita and Onyewusu love story.  There are two main reasons for that: firstly Mwita was one of my favourite characters. He’s everything I’m looking for in a fictional man, he was witty, sarcastic, smart, knowledgeable and flawed.

Secondly, their relation was believable. There isn’t any “will they won’t they” scenario. Mwita is also an Ewu, he’s the one who introduce Onyewosu to magic, the alchemy between them is flagrant and before we know it they’re already a couple. 

Mwita loves Onyewusu, he supports her, understands her, soothe her pain, talk her out of doing silly things, but he’s also jealous of her. In a very patriarchal society, it’s difficult for a man to accept that he’s the healer while his woman is the warrior.

Mwita is very knowledgeable in sorcery, and yet ironically he isn’t a sorcerer and will never be able to be one. It wasn’t his destiny. Full Stop.

Onyewusu isn’t always a piece of cake either. It would be an understatement to say that the constant rejection and agressivity she has faced since the day she was born damaged her somehow. Her emotions are constricted inside her, and they can sporadically come up and unleash like a blistering storm.

Both lovers are flawed. Inevitably, sometimes their personality clashes, sometimes they have arguments but they nonetheless always have each others’ back. Besides, even though they are soulmates (in my opinion) or something like that, there isn’t any Twillightesque line like “I love you so much, I can’t live without you anymore” or “If you ever disappear, I’ll kill myself”. 

Who Fears Death is the first adult novel Nnedi Okorafor published. And it is indeed a very adult book. As a matter of fact, I think it might be too adult for some. Through her work Okorafor explore many themes and issues: sexism, racism, female genital mutilation, slavery and genocide.

Personally, I loved it because it never felt as if she was preaching, but I can see how other people might feel overwhelmed. Onyewusu dealt with sexism, with racism and all of these issues  in a very humane way. Her reactions were never overdone or superficial, therefore I could easily identify with how she felt and what she thought.

Furthermore, the main conflict in the story was not abstract, it was tangible. It was something that anybody could learn about if they opened a history textbook. Yes, since it’s a fantasy book, the villain was a sorcerer. 

However, history is full of men who pose as prophet or leader and influence the mass to commit foul crimes. Also, a race trying to eradicate another race is horrific, but unfortunately it’s something that happened. The genocide in Rwanda is the most recent example of that.

There are a couple of things that made me frown a little bit in the story, though, but they’re nothing major. 

I was disappointed by the final battle between Onyewosu and her father. There was so much build up throughout the story about this confrontation, so I expected a clash of power of epic scale. But no, their one and only meeting was short, quick and even I thought a bit rushed.

I also couldn’t understand why Onyewosu allowed her friends to follow her in her quest to defeat her father. 1) They don’t have any magical power or survival skills, 2) This trip is dangerous and may lead them to their death and 3) I’m not sure they realized how risky the quest truly was, but Onyewosu knew.

It was nice to read a fantasy book set in the motherland and not in the usual European setting. I was especially pleased by the fact that the author set her story in Africa, and she never wavered from her idea. The food, the clothing, the hair styles, everything was based on West African countries’ culture. 

The story is supposed to take place in a Post Apocalyptic Africa. However, if it wasn’t because I had read the book’s summary, I would have never guessed that until maybe toward the end of the story. I would have thought it was an Alternate Africa or something along that line. 

In any case, I loved Nnedi Okorafor’s novel. If I had to summarize it in one sentence, I’ll say that: Who Fear Death is a grim book, but it’s also the kind of book that make you believe that even in the deepest, darkest, loneliest abyss, you can find a beacon of light, however tiny.


  1. I have never heard of this book, but it must be pretty good if it won such an award! I also like the idea of this challenge you have set out for yourself. I am wondering what it will be like to read such a book. You described the plot in such detail and so well, I feel like I know more about the book :3 I might have to try this one myself...

  2. I highly recommend this book to you! It was amazing, I'm sure you won't be disappointed. It's also pretty deep, but the way the author présents controversial topics makes them easier to deal with for the reader.


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