Originally posted 08/12/10 in my meta/review blog
Who Fears Death is a difficult story to write about, because it deals with situations that most people find difficult to understand or deal with, such as genocide and war. It’s a very strong book, with a great deal of depth to it. It’s a fast paced and engrossing read, but I wouldn’t call it entertaining. Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic fantasy set in a far future Africa, in the general area of Sudan; it is a story about a conflict between two tribes, the Nuru and the Okeke. The Nuru have enslaved and otherwise marginalized the Okeke in an attempt to wipe them out for centuries. The Okeke in turn have been fighting back but are losing as the violence escalates.
The main character and narrator of this story is Onyesonwu, who is telling the story of her life to someone a few days before her scheduled execution by stoning. Her story as she tells it is something that is both a tragedy and a triumph. Her mother was assaulted by a Nuru general (who later turns out to have been a sorcerer) and was more or less abandoned by her own people. Onyesonwu grew up in the desert and in a small town that was far away from the fighting. Because of the circumstances of her birth, the community ostracizes her and her mother. She was born with extraordinary powers, but because she was Ewu (half Okeke and half Nuru) and female, the local sorcerer wouldn’t teach her. Her life gets briefly better when her mother marries the town blacksmith, but when he dies things become more difficult again.
Despite her troubles she is able to make friends, and eventually, to get training for her talents. (Mostly because the sorcerer eventually realized that effects of not training her would be worse than training her.) She learns that her biological father is a Nuru sorcerer who is largely responsible for the current outbreak of war between the Nuru and Okeke. She and some friends go on a journey to stop the sorcerer, and find a way to stop the war for good.
The world the writer creates is a strange and fascinating one. Okorafor describes a desert world filled with magic and wonder, as well as strife and evil. It is a world where sorcerers might guard caves filled with old computers and books. It is a world where animals of different species form alliances to steal the food and water of human travelers. This is a story of initiation and transformation, of love and hatred. The characters are engaging and interesting, and I had trouble putting the book down because I wanted to find out what happened next. The ending contains two mutually satisfying endings–one where Onyesonwu is a martyr (which is set up from the beginning so I am not spoiling you) and another where she becomes something else entirely. The trick is not that you have a choice of two endings, but that one ending is the cause of the other.
I really enjoyed Who Fears Death, and highly recommend it. Bear in mind though that the story doesn’t pull any punches. This is a very dark book in places, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who might be “triggered” by abuse and assault.