Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death was simultaneously one of the more riveting and confusing science fiction slash fantasy novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. No, seriously. I loved every page of this book only I’m not positive I understand just what the hell happened on them.
Who Fears Death is a story set in an Africa torn by violence of a child born to a woman through the atrocity of rape by the leader of the men who destroyed her village, a daughter she was so sure and so determined to be different that she named her Onyesonwu, or, “who fears death?” In an ancient language.
Returning home after her rape she finds her husband miraculously still alive, but when she sees the horror in his eyes and shame at his wife being raped and thus no longer clean in his eyes, she runs to the desert where she gives birth and raises her daughter alone.
Her daughter is “Ewu” – a child of rape that her culture says is doomed to a life of violence and, as a halfbreed, is rejected by everyone. When her mother knows that it is time her daughter learns the ways of civilization and settles in a small town, that rejection is palpable.
As the Onyesonwu grows she begins to manifest abilities that go far beyond what anyone expects of a child such as her, especially a girl child. In an attempt to prove herself normal and her family normal – her mother having fallen in love with the one man in town who treated the daughter with kindness, the local blacksmith – Onyesonwu discovers her abilities as well as the fact that someone powerful seeks her death.
Her father, a powerful sorcerer.
The book then begins a desperate journey for her to not only learn enough to use her abilities to save her own life but to change the very foundation of a belief system that deems women a lesser creature.
Onyesonwu is anything but a lesser creature. She has to be one if the most powerful and beautifully realized female characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting In.a work of fiction.
Her story is one that dances across the page and seems easy to predict as seemingly all the threads are laid in plain sight but turn, wondrously. You see that Okorator was so deft that she blended the threads at the end, much as one does at the end weave of a beautiful carpet, and unifies the lines into a profound and profoundly simple and beautiful ending.
Of course that’s how it was meant to end, you think. Then, you realize what just happened, and you want to read it all over again to see how the magic was accomplished.
Damn, what a great book. I cannot recommend it enough. Read it. Read it. Read it.