Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor
Who Fears Death Cover

Who Fears Death

Parnassus Reads

My foray into the fantasy section of the bookstore was due entirely to the arresting cover art of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart. I saw it, opened to about the middle and began reading. I stood there for at least an hour. I couldn't put it down, and I couldn't afford it at the time. When my shoulders began to ache from my heavy backpack, and I finally noticed the odd looks the salesgirl was giving me, I reluctantly put the book back, determined to come back for it as soon as I got my next pay check. I cam back about a week and a half later, hoping that it would still be there, not knowing what I would do if it wasn't. It was. I bought it stuffed it into my already overstuffed bag and went home. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It was my First Book in the adult fantasy genre, and I've been trying to recapture that thrill ever since.

I read some YA fantasy as a kid, sure. I even managed to find some of the good stuff, like Tanith Lee. But SF/F was not a section I usually bothered with until Carey rocked my little world. I've of course read all of her other books and can't wait to get my hands on her latest, Agents of Hel: Dark Currents, which comes out tomorrow (once again, I'm broke and thus have to wait till my library reservation shows up). I've also tried to find more heroines like Phedre, more writers like Carey. There are few out there. It's no secret that both the Science/Speculative Fiction and Fantasy genres are dominated by male writers and male protagonists. This is not to say that there aren't excellent female writers in the genre, or that a male writer can't write a strong female lead (though, off the top of my head I can't think of any in the latter category). Only one author thus far has come close to Carey and her heroines: N.K. Jemisin. Her excellent Inheritance trilogy quickly became a favorite (I've written about them here, here, and here), and I devoured the Dreambloodduology. Like Carey, Jemisin has written both male and female leads. Unlike Carey, Jemisin's worlds aren't stand-ins for some version of Europe. Carey is a good enough author to not completely white-wash her alterna-Europe, but it wasn't until the third trilogy in the Kusheline Legacy series that the lead could be considered a Person of Color. Race has been a larger focus and theme of Jemisin's novels, but not necessarily a blunt point of them.

It was only after reading Jemisin's work that I added People of Color to my fantasy novel criteria, whether it be the author or the characters depicted. I wanted novels written by women of any race that had strong female leads of any race, but I didn't want novels that upheld or depicted the status quo regarding race relations. I wanted novels that subverted them or challenged them. It's harder than you might think to find such a novel, especially when you don't know how to search for what you want. I was aware of Octavia Butler of course, but I also kind of wanted an author who wasn't American or British, an author who wasn't from a colonial power. That's why I love sites like Io9.com, or when authors themselves recommend novels.

I really don't remember how I discovered Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (who is Nigerian-American), but doing so changed many things for me. Who Fears Death is the coming-of-age story of Onyesonwu, an ewu child born to a desert wanderer. To beewu is to be scorned by everyone, to be feared by everyone, to be hated by everyone. To be ewu is to be a child of rape. Onyesonwu is marked as such by her sand-colored skin and hair and her tiger's eyes, her biological father's eyes. Onyesonwu's mother, like the rest of her people. The Okekke, have dark brown skin and the physical characteristics of indigenous African people. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic Africa, though the exact place is not disclosed until the author's afterword. In Onyesonwu's world, rape is a weapon wielded by the ruling race, the Nuru, who have yellow-brown skin and straight black hair. Okekke and Nuru religion teach that the Nuru were sent from the sun by the goddess Ani to rule the Okekke people, who in the darkness of the world grew monstrous and destructive. Onyesonwu not only has to confront the everyday racism from nearly everyone she encounters, she also has to confront the everyday sexism of her people. Add to that the fact that she is a sorcerer prophesied to rewrite the Great Book (the religious text that justifies Okekke subjugation and self-hatred), and she's got a lot to deal with. With the help of her friends, she'll learn to face anything that comes her way as she journeys toward her past and her future.

Onyesonwu is wholly likable and a sympathetic character, and her world is horrible but inhabitable. That's probably because her world isn't that different from the place that inspired it. There is magic, yes, and Okorafor does an excellent job describing it, and using it. Okorafor doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of Onyesonwu's world, but neither does she relish in it. Rape is often used as a piece of scenery, something common that happens in the background in high fantasy novels (here's looking at you, George R.R. Martin). Okorafor does too good a job at bringing the horror of rape and its accompanying shame and rage to her readers. This is no casual rape either; it's weaponized, meaning that the rape that occurs in this novel is part of a military campaign to further break the spirit of the Okekke people. Magic may be pure fantasy in the novel, but this is not. Fantasy and science/speculative fiction have long been an arena to talk about the current societal ills and injustices, and can in many ways be more powerful than seeing the images or the faces of people victimized on the news. It's the power of a good storyteller to make you care about her characters, to care about what they care about, and Okorafor is a good storyteller. I haven't yet read any of her young adult novels, but I just got two of them from the library. I am incredibly excited to have discovered Okorafor, and I would highly recommend Who Fears Death to anyone who is tired of the usual fantasy tropes. But be warned, this book is hard to read at times, as only the best books are.