Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

December 29, 2010 at 5:05 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

“The killing has begun again and is not far.” To me, this sentence from near the beginning of Who Fears Death captures its mood. Note the passive voice. If you can’t assign a cause to the genocide, how can you stop it? And then the location is almost arbitrary, like the path of a storm. This is the language of the profoundly helpless. Onyesonwu, a young African woman, wants to do something, anything, to stop the horror, but what can one person do in the face of deep-seeded hatred?

Onyesonwu’s Africa is a blend of the future, the present, and the past. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future, and while the nature of the apocalypse is never even hinted at, the climate has grown harsher and there is no contact with the anyone outside northeastern Africa, if they are out there at all. There are electronic books, often written in English, and people use Dune-like air filtration devices to get water in the desert. However, this is not (in my opinion, at least) science fiction and the book ignores the concerns of the post-apocalyptic genre. The civilization of the past is forgotten, so no one is hoping to recreate it, and what has replaced it is not anarchy but a civilization not very dissimilar with the present. The hatred between Arab and black Africans (referred to as Nuru and Okeke in the novel) is more or less the same in Who Fears Death as what’s been playing out in Darfur right up until now. But this is also the Africa of the past, or at least the Africa that people in the past thought they were living in: there are magicians and sorcerers with the power to heal and destroy, see the future, and traverse the spirit world. Islam is absent, and instead both the Nuru and Okeke worship a goddess named Ani and hold to not-so-great teachings from the “Great Book”.

Onyesonwu owes her very existence to the ongoing atrocities, for she is mixed race, the product of her Okeke mother being raped by a Nuru man as part of a premeditated campaign to destroy Okeke families (I hoped this weaponized rape was Okorafor’s invention but as she noted in the acknowledgments, unfortunately it is a real phenomenon). Her skin color and facial features are testimony to the crime years after it was committed. Onyesonwu’s mother loves her anyway, but the rest of the Okeke community is not so accepting. While it’s easy to blame the Nuru for everything that’s wrong with Onyesonwu’s world since they have the upper hand and are the primary instigators of the atrocities, Onyesonwu experiences plenty of prejudice from the Okeke as well and sees them as complicit to various degrees. Most have internalized the belief that they are racially destined to be slaves, and those that are not meekly accepting of their degradation rise up and carry out atrocities of their own, further entrenching the racial divide.

There is hope, however. For the world, because there is a prophecy that speaks of a transformational figure who will change everything, and also for Onyesonwu, as she turns out to have considerable powers of sorcery herself that allow her to take control of her life. While much of the book is devoted to Onyesonwu’s struggles with the prejudices and preconceptions of her community, quite a bit is also centered on her efforts to master her powers. I’ve complained in the past about books with a lot of these magic education scenes on the grounds that I’ve read a million of them and they’re all the same. However, I actually enjoyed these scenes in Who Fears Death. I think it’s because while the standard genre view of learning magic is that it is empowering, though perhaps a little dangerous, in Who Fears Death the obstacles to Onyesonwu’s efforts to learn magic are essentially the same obstacles she would encounter doing almost anything in her society: she’s a woman, she’s mixed race, and she’s unwilling to play the part society has assigned her.

The novel halfheartedly tries to disguise it, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Onyesonwu turns out to be the savior figure. Wisely, Okorafor doesn’t make her the sort who goes around giving speeches. After reading Dan Simmons’ Endymion books I decided that it’s a mistake for authors to try to write these sorts of speeches unless they are themselves messiahs. Instead, the prospect of changing the world is hinted at leading up to the conclusion but never really understood, even by Onyesonwu herself. Violence begets violence, the Okeke people say about children of rape like Onyesonwu, assuming that she will be as violent and evil as the act that created her. Her lover Mwita (and, I’d imagine, most readers) assume the answer is to invert this and embrace non-violence, perhaps something along the lines of Ghandi. “This is not what we are!” Mwita reminds Onyesonwu halfway through the book when she’s about to use her powers to smite some would-be assailants. “No violence! It’s what sets us apart!” But although Onyesonwu seems sympathetic to Mwita’s view, she is still enraged by the atrocities she encounters and can’t help but answer them with violence. She struggles to rein in her temper (an extremely destructive one when coupled with her powers) but never completely succeeds. She’s human, in other words.

All the characters in the book, in fact, with the possible exception of her biological father, are drawn with an impressive amount of nuance. Although Mwita is Onyesonwu’s closest friend, they disagree and argue like real people. Her friends like her more than they like Mwita, and as circumstances put them in greater stress the friendships fray. The wise elders that Onyesonwu turns to for help and training give her mostly good advice, but they too are subject to various prejudices and superstitions. Even the practice of female circumcision is handled with a surprising amount of moderation. Okorafor doesn’t pull any punches in describing the pain of the procedure and its lamentable results, but participating in what even some characters (including Onyesonwu’s parents) call a barbaric ritual provides Onyesonwu with links to her community she otherwise wouldn’t have. I suppose it’s part of the book’s broader theme that some good can come from evil, a truth reflected in Onyesonwu’s very existence.

It’s this subtlety that makes this a great novel despite an ending that, in my opinion, doesn’t quite pay off what came before. I’m not totally sure what I think about the juxtaposition of a real-world crises with a fantastic solution, however. It reminds me a little bit of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. Reading that novel, I concluded that this sort of solution is a form of despair, saying essentially that there really is no way out except via magic. However, despite its frequently depressing subject matter, Who Fears Death has a surprisingly optimistic undercurrent since it ultimately is a novel of empowerment, even if the method of empowerment (hereditary magical ability) is unlikely to be available to any of its readers. Perhaps the fantastic element is a way to allow people who find articles like the one I linked above too horrifying to contemplate for long (I am one of these people, I’m afraid) to cope with a novel-length examination of these problems.

I really don’t read even remotely enough new fiction to be justified in making pronouncements like this, but I’d be shocked if Who Fears Death isn’t considered one of the best fantasy novels of 2010.

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  1. […] reviews of Who Fears Death, by Matt Hilliard, Jonathan McCalmont (discussion) and Farah […]

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