Now that I’ve finished Who Fears Death, I don’t know what to make of it. This is Nnedi Okarafor’s first adult fantasy novel, although she has published several young adult fantasies. It is a strong, unflinching parable about tribal warfare and genocide in the Sudan. It is not a great fantasy book, and I don’t know if the ending works at all. And I don’t know if that matters.
Set in the near future after an undescribed apocalypse, Who Fears Death tells the story of Onyesonwu (her name means “Who Fears Death”). Onyesonwu is an ewu, mixed-blood, the child of a planned and organized rape of her Okeke mother by a Nuru man. The Okeke have been raised to believe that they are meant to be the slaves of the Nuru. Even the Great Book tells them that the Okeke caused the catastrophe, which appears to be ecological in nature.
Onyesonwu’s mother wants to die after she is raped by a Nuru sorcerer, but when she realizes she is pregnant she determines to live. Onyesonwu grows up in the desert, learning survival skills, until she and her mother move to the town of Jwahir. As she grows up, Onyesonwu discovers that she has extraordinary magical powers or juju. She is an eshu, a shape-shifter, and far more. She meets Mwita, another ewu, although his Okeke and Nuru parents were lovers and he is not the product of rape. Mwita is a healer and studies with the town sorcerer, Aro, who refuses to take Onyesonwu as a student because she is female. Unschooled, Onye’s growing powers become a danger to the village and Aro eventually agrees to take her on out of self-defense.
Onye’s sorcerer father tries to kill her using supernatural means, and Onye dreams of revenge, but her destiny is far greater than the death of one sorcerer. With Mwita and a group of female school friends, Onyesonwu heads east, to Durfa, the town where her father lives, because he is gathering an army and preparing to destroy all Okeke.
Okorafor is direct in her descriptions of weaponized rape, female circumcision, institutionalized inequality and codified violence. Daily life in Onye’s village is well-described, although it is not particularly post-apocalyptic. Okorafor does not spend time trying to explain or understand the tribal hatred between Nuru and Okeke, or even why sexual inequality is so prevalent. These are merely the conditions of life in Onye’s world. In Jwahir, Onyesonwu’s ostracism is taken for granted by Onye herself.
Onyesonwu is a flawed sorcerer but a great character. She is emotional and impulsive, with a bad temper and a deep well of self-doubt. Unlike sorcerers in the European-American fantasy tradition, Onye has a strong, loving mother and stepfather and a lover who is loyal. She and Mwita squabble constantly, but it is not about sexual jealousy; it is about the reversal of roles. Mwita is a healer and Onye is a sorcerer, a function usually reserved for men. Mwita also fears Onye’s impulsiveness, since he has also been Aro’s student and knows more about juju than she does.
Juju does not protect Onyesonwu or her friends from the violence of villagers as they head west; nor does it stop the bickering and distrust among her friends. Still, she does reach Durfa and confront her sorcerer father. The confrontation is dramatic, but defeating her sorcerer father is not her true destiny, and Onyesonwu cannot rest until she finds a Nuru seer who holds an artifact that has meaning for her, and for the Okeke people.
This is a powerful story and there is a lot to like. I like Onye and her friends; I like that the book is set in Africa and is about Africans, not European-Africans or transplanted Americans. Okorafor deals with difficult issues courageously for the most part, but there’s an element of the book that looks like fantasy-wish-fulfillment, and that jars me, and makes me distrust the doubled ending.
Early in the book the impulsive Onyesonwu makes a decision to go through with the Eleventh Year Rite, female circumcision. Her mother and stepfather do not support this practice, but Onye decides that she is already a source of shame to her mother, and doing this will keep her from being more of one. This decision has catastrophic results. It will not only affect Onye’s life and happiness, it can have a devastating effect on her juju. One magical being she meets during her magical initiation flat-out tells her that she will not survive it because she has been “cut.” The Eleventh Rite scene is shocking, and Okorafor makes it clear that the female elders wholly support genital mutilation. Later, though, Onye undoes what was done to her. Later still, she heals her school friends, and that scene shows intense physical and emotional exertion. In the first sequence, though, Onye basically wishes she were whole, and she is. It is too easy and feels like Okorafor wants to have things both ways: to point out the devastation of female circumcision and still let Onye have satisfying sex with her true love. Thus, when the book has a doubled ending (not unlike John Fowles’s doubled ending in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which I also distrusted), I have to ask myself whether it is just another way of having both the meaningful ending and the happy one.
Perhaps some of my skepticism comes from Okorafor’s young-adult background. The book has simple sentences, brief chapters and lack of foreshadowing, particularly of the important peacock symbol. These are aspects often found in YA novels. Generally, in a YA novel I expect to see the writer try to give the main character happiness even when the events of the story do not logically lead to it.
In the end, I’m not sure my concerns really matter. If you read Who Fears Death as a parable rather than a fully-realized fantasy novel, it is moving and thought-provoking. It easily earns four stars. Can women really change their destinies in this part of Africa? Can their power stop the genocide? Can anything? It seems doubtful, but at the end of Who Fears Death, both the Okeke and the reader are left with a precious magical gift: hope.