Read: 8 August, 2016
Who Fears Death takes place in post-nuclear holocaust Africa, though save for a few mentions of computers and scooters and other relics of modernity, it might as well have been set in mythic time.
The story follows Onyesonwu, a mixed race child born of weaponized rape, as she comes into her power as a sorceress and ends the genocide of her mother’s people. On the way, she gathers friends and allies, falls in love, and learns about her mother.
I really enjoyed Onyesonwu as a character – it’s rare to find a narrating main character that has quite so strong a personality. She’s certainly no Bella Swan! And while she tends to get angry and lash out, I never felt annoyed by her. That’s no small feat when she keeps impatiently interrupting characters who are trying to explain things to her because they aren’t getting to the point fast enough!
I loved the setting. I loved Okorafor’s descriptions of the desert, and I tend to favour that mythic, mysterious brand of magic. The early parts of the book, as Onyesonwu is learning about magic, what it can do, and how it works were, in my opinion, the best.
That said, the book has its flaws. The big one that I see mentioned a lot in other reviews is that it follows that “be mentioned in a prophecy, get mentor, kick ass” formula. I actually found this to be the least of the novel’s problems – mainly because I enjoyed the mentorship sections of the books so much, and because the prophecy bit took a backseat to the characters. It was brought up every so often (along with the plot-paradoxing issue of the two main characters knowing how they were going to die), but Onyesonwu’s strong personality drove the plot forward. Until the very end of the book (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I never had the sense that she was being driven by the prophecy. Events seemed to line up conveniently, but it worked within the context of the world, and Onyesonwu made deliberate choices every step of the way.
The much bigger issue with the book is its second half. (SPOILERS: Once the group of friends leaves Jwahir, the plot loses its focus. Long passages are spent on side missions, and most of the narration is devoted to the in-group bickering. Toward the end of this, they meet the Vah – a group of people who live in the centre of a sandstorm. The Vah are literally only introduced right before they appear, when Mwita sees the sandstorm approaching and asks if Onyesonwu has ever heard of the “Red People.” These people pop in so late in the story, with no build up, and they end up providing the main characters with the means to destroy their enemy. It’s too convenient, and it stinks of poor planning.
The ending itself – where the Big Bad is defeated and the corrupted holy book is rewritten – felt horribly rushed. They confront the Big Bad, Onyesonwu is completely incapacitated, and Mwita whips out the magical item that can defeat their enemy. That’s it! After all of that build up and all those journeys and all that accumulation of power, it’s all over in a page or two. And then, when Onyesonwu goes to rewrite the holy book, she does so with a little bit of handwaving. That’s it?!)
The final thing I want to touch on is the lack of consequences. There are times in the novel when choices are made that have negative consequences, and the impact is just sucked out of them. (SPOILERS: A perfect example is the treatment of FGM. Bringing it up, and having the female main characters all undergo it, is interesting and has consequences for their relationships with others – specifically, Onyesonwu’s friends link the idea of freedom to the physical fact of having a clitoris (much is made of heterosexuality in the novel). But when it comes right down to it, Onyesonwu just uses her magic to grow everyone’s clitorises. That’s it, conflict over, everyone healed, the end. And just when I’d thought it so interesting to see a pre-pubescent girl choose FGM, against her parents’ wishes, for the sake of her family’s honour suddenly hit puberty and rage at her choice. But then she gets to Ctrl+Z and the consequences are just gone.)
Overall, I did enjoy Who Fears Death a lot. I think that I would have judged it more harshly if it had been written by a white author and set in, oh I don’t know, Chicago, but my library needs a lot more colour. As it was, I welcome Okorafor’s perspective and I was glad to see a non-western European take on magic. If I’m going to read fantasy about Chosen Ones defeating the Big Bads in accordance to prophecy, I’m happier for it to be Who Fears Death than The Fionavar Tapestry.
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