Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is not an easy book to read. A lot of terrible things happen within the pages. It's not terribly written, though. That's the problem: it's easy to sympathize with the characters these awful things happen to.
Who Fears Death reads like an African woman's hero's journey. It takes place in a near-future post-apocalyptic landscape, which isn't apparent until technology starts to show up. The story is framed as Onyesonwu, whose name means Who Fears Death, telling of her life to an unseen person who's writing it all down. We get a better picture as the story goes on of who that person is, and why Onyesonwu feels the need to tell her tale.
Onyesonwu is Ewu, the result of a Nuru man's rape of an Okeke woman. She is marked by lighter skin than the Okeke she lives among, and the freckles on her face. She is also set apart by powerful abilities that allow her to change her shape and learn other aspects of magic. The villagers in Jwahir fear the magic she can wield, and they're convinced that a child born of violence can only grow up to be violent. She's determined to learn magic, to defend herself against the mysterious force she sees in visions and dreams. Then she learns of a prophecy telling of her "rewriting the Great Book," a document that supports the slavery and subjugation of the Okeke, and she sets off to the west at the age of 19 to fulfill her destiny.
The weakest part of the book is the middle, when Onye is traveling with her friends. Binta, Luyu, and Diti all underwent the Eleventh Year Rite, a ritual of female circumcision, with her, so they're bonded for life, in a way. Mwita is her lover, another Ewu whose parents were in love, and also a magic practitioner. His skill mostly lies in healing, and he remarks with some bitterness how ironic it is that she gets to be the hero while he's assigned the traditional woman's role. Fanasi is Diti's husband, though their arrangement hasn't been formalized, and the pain associated with the Eleventh Year Rite prevents them from consummating their marriage.
The six of them traveling together bring quite the mix of emotions and drama with them, which made for some frustrating reading. I really can't say what Diti and Fanasi's role was, except to frustrate Onye and show her women can be just as irritating as men. Maybe it was to contrast the relationship between Onye and Mwita, which, while it has its tensions, is far more secure, and downright romantic compared to Diti and Fanasi sulking at each other. Onye and Mwita are equal partners, and the conclusion requires them to work together as such.
The use of mythology, the landscape, and the history of the area fascinated me. I've read a lot of America- and European-based post-apocalypse stories, but never one based in Africa. A lot of the troubles in the story reflect recent news coming out of Darfur and Sudan.
The structure of the story follows Campbell's hero's journey formula closely enough it could've been using it as a checklist. That's not a complaint; there are precious few such stories about women, and even fewer about nonwhite women. It gives the western reader something familiar to hold onto among the unfamiliar setting and mythology.
I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Anne Flosnik. Her volume and tone are fine, but the accent frequently felt overdone. It sounded more like she was making fun of someone like Onyesonwu than that she was faithfully recreating her words. It also made it difficult to wrap my mind around spellings, as she frequently pronounced the same words and names differently. I would have preferred she did away with the accent.
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