Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor
Who Fears Death Cover

Who Fears Death


On one level 'Who Fears Death' follows the fantasy bildungsroman formula to the letter. It features an underdog protagonist, a wary mentor, an evil wizard, and a prophecy that will affect not only the characters but their whole world. But what makes it different is its setting. Who Fears Death is set in post-apocalyptic Sahara Africa, a dessert world blanketed in magic. While the broad plot points might be familiar the issues it engages in (such as war and rape) are portrayed in a way that's more insightful than your usual Campbellian sword and sorcery tale.

Onyesonwu is a child born of rape. Everyone in her village knows it too, thanks to her sand-coloured skin and hair. While the rest of her village might shun her, Onyesonwu's mother always believed that Onyesonwu would someday be a great sorceress. And she's right. As she grows Onyesonwu learns how to change forms. She can become different animals and slip into 'the wilderness', the spiritual world. She can travel for miles by leaving her body. But for all her powers she is still 1. A woman and 2. An 'ewu,' a child born of rape, and therefore has to fight for any scrap of recognition or acceptance. But Onyesonwu isn't just an awesome sorceress, she's also stubborn and not willing to take crap from anyone. It's these things, more than her magic, that make her an appealing character.

Like I said in the first paragraph, the plot is very hero's journey so it feels kind of silly recapping it: headstrong protagonist convinces tough mentor to train her, hero grows more powerful, sets out to destroy a great evil and bring peace to the land. But while I usually hate stories that rely on this framework the details won me over. For example, when Onye sets out to kill the evil sorcerer who is threatening her people, her friends go with her. All right, so we've all seen fantasy where a close-knit group of heroes strike out to have an adventure. But what I liked about Onyesonwu's group is that they act like typically stupid young people, making mistakes and breaking hearts and getting caught up in all their little squabbles all while trying to save the world.

I also liked the way Okorafor wrote Onyesonwu's mother. She's never presented as merely a victim, but instead as a strong woman who has a deep knowledge of the desert and the spiritual world.

Okorafor does a great job balancing the light and the darkness. She totally sells the horrible things that the characters go through, but she also makes you truly believe that they have the strength to overcome. The writing helps with that. It's clear and straightforward, the grim parts all the more stark because of how bare the prose is. Still, even with the clear prose and short chapters, I found I could only read short amounts at a time so I could take it all in.

I also liked... Well, I really liked this book and I could talk about it forever. I usually roll my eyes when I read a story that seems like it's going through some kind of Joseph Campbell approved checklist, but the strong characters and unconventional setting (to English-language fantasy, anyway) gives the old tropes a jolt of energy.