For our honeymoon, my wife and I went up to sunny New England. We road-tripped from Burlington, Vermont to Bar Harbor, Maine and stopped at every. Single. Used. Bookstore. The best honeymoon we could hope for, really. In Burlington, we stopped on Church Street at a little place called the Crow Bookshop, which deals in new, used, and out-of-print books. Their sci-fi/fantasy section wasn’t huge, which seems to be standard for hippy/literary bookstores. But there, next to the five millionth copy of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, was a book I’d never even seen before: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.
I’ve read Binti, Dr. Okorafor’s Hugo-winning Afrofuturist novella, but other than that I’m a relative newcomer to her writing. I went into Who Fears Death with almost no expectations. I was blown away.
The plot summary, in brief:
Onyesonwu – Onye for short – is Ewu, a child of rape expected to live a short, violent life. As a young girl, she begins to manifest a strange and terrifying brand of magic, and it’s not long before someone is trying to kill her. The story takes Onye from girlhood to adulthood as she grapples with her life-shattering powers, her place in society, and her prophetic purpose in a postapocalyptic Africa.
It’s hard to get any more specific than that without ruining some of the intricate plotting going on here. The book starts off in Onye’s youth, and I had a hard time getting into the first fifty pages or so. Part of this might be the sheer brutality. Before you hit page fifty, you have read a POV account of a rape victim – Onye’s mother – and witnessed a ritual form of female genital mutilation. I’ve read a lot of horrifying stuff – in fact, one or two books before Who Fears Death, I read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which features atrocity upon atrocity. But this was hard to get through. Okorafor builds up tension well, and then does a great job of not spilling into melodrama; when she shows us horror, she shows it simply, without embellishment or exclamation:
Halfway through my breath, she cut. The pain was an explosion. I felt it in every part of my body and I almost blacked out. Then I was screaming. I didn’t know I was capable of such noise. Faintly, I felt other women holding me down. I was shocked that they hadn’t let go and run off.
As mentioned, the story starts off in Onye’s youth, and the first part of the novel is almost a schoolyard drama, complete with the close-knit circle of friends and the mysterious outsider love interest. Maybe that’s intentional – to give us a familiar opening before taking the reader on a completely different adventure. Who Fears Death is a prophet story, a shaman story, the story of a holy or mythological figure.
Who Fears Death is what more “realistic” fantasy books should look at as an example of how to do fantasy realism right. Nnedi Okorafor doesn’t shy away from violence and brutality, but she also doesn’t just use it for set-dec. Nor does she make it up from whole cloth. In the afterword, Nnedi Okorafor credits a 2004 AP news story by Emily Wax titled, “We want to make a light baby.” She says, “This article about weaponized rape in the Sudan created the passageway through which Onyesonwu slipped into my world.” The violence in the book is true, and that imbues it with a certain power. It’s also the real heart of the narrative. Okorafor explores the cultural violence in Onye’s world from almost every angle. Without giving away the ending, Onye confronts the literal and metaphorical roots of this violence on every scale, from the racial warfare bubbling over in her country to the personal rape that led to her birth.
Violence underpins every piece of the story, but there’s a lot more going on than just brutality. Okorafor also writes a great friendship drama throughout the story. There’s boyfriends and girlfriends and true love and petty jealousy and premature marriage and sexual exploration, all woven into neat subplots that complement the main prophet narrative. Onye’s magical education, which takes up about the first half of the book, contains some really wonderful scenes and tangents; once the main narrative kicks off (after about the first fifty pages), the book just bounces along.
Again, without giving anything away, the ending came a little too fast for me – I almost wanted to linger more on what was happening. There’s one prophecy/phrase in particular that’s only ever spelled out once (if I remember correctly – maybe I read too fast!), but in the end that wording turns out to be crucial to Onye’s victory. Maybe I am a dummy and I need stuff spelled out for me more, but I would’ve liked to see our characters talking and thinking about the words of that prophecy more to set up the big finale.
If I had to sum up the book with one pithy line, I’d call this a brutal fairy tale. The heroine is a mythological figure from a new myth, if that makes sense. Imagine if someone wrote a novel about Jesus Christ, and also the Bible never existed and this novel was the only place Jesus’s story was told. That’s what I’m getting at. It feels like a larger-than-life tale, not just a story.
As mentioned, I bought this on my honeymoon. I started reading it on the last day of the honeymoon; by the time I went to bed that night, I was done with the book. Once it picked up steam, baby, it picked up steam. I’m happy to have read it and eagerly recommend you read it, too. As long as you can handle some stomach-churning stuff.