Who Fears Death is a wild combination of fantasy, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and West African mythology. It is about race, genocide, and retribution. It is about the longest war. It is one of the most brutally, terribly real fantasy books I have ever read. There are no fairy godmothers here — no bumbling, comic companions, no neatly-disposed-of villains, no princes in hiding who fall in love with the heroine and get conveniently restored to their rightful thrones. Instead, there is only a vast Saharan wasteland dotted with the technological wreckage of a previous era, and a lingering sense of vengeful anger.
The narrative defies a neat knitting-together. It begins in a dystopic sub-Saharan Africa, where a genocidal war has begun between races. Onyesonwu, our heroine, is conceived in a brutal act of weaponized rape. Onyesonwu grows up on the chaotic outskirts of civilization, socially outcast as the biracial result of rape. Her childhood is full of simmering fury and wild bursts of unnerving supernatural power. As part of her harsh magical training, she foresees her own death and learns the identity of her biological father: a sorcerer named Daib. Daib is at the center of the genocide across the desert, orchestrating scenes of horrific violence. The rest of the book is an eerie, doomed journey across the desert to find and confront her father. But there are other layers here: Onyesonwu’s relationship with Mwita, also biracial; the justification for genocide in the (biblical) Great Book; the complicated horror of genital mutilation. It is not a simple story.
Sexual and racial oppression, two evils that have historically dogged each other’s footsteps, are the core concern of the book. Onyesonwu’s mother is targeted for sexual violence because of her race, as part of the genocidal war between the white Nuru and the black Okeke. Onyesonwu is labeled unlucky, ugly, and sexually immoral because of her violent conception. Only men are permitted formal magical training, because women lack the self-discipline and emotional control. This is the system of oppression that Okorafor’s heroine rebels against.
But it is Onyesonwu herself that is the most compelling, innovative rejection of social hierarchies. There’s something unusual, rare-seeming about Onyesonwu’s character. I think it’s this: In fantasy books, female warriors fall into two broad categories. There are the tough but beautiful women with unlikely armor who fall in love with the main hero because he’s even tougher than they are and they really just want to be protected; or the tough but beautiful women who overcome patriarchy with only a few minor road bumps and then get some kind of official or public recognition of their skill. The second version is satisfying, but it’s not really how patriarchy works (Joan of Arc was made into a folk hero and martyr after she was burned alive, let’s recall). There’s something about Onyesonwu that makes those characters feel like paper cut-outs of real women.
I think it’s her bottomless pit of vengeful rage. Onyesonwu’s entire world is physically bounded and shaped by gender violence and oppression. Her mother was raped, her friends are stoned to death as witches and prostitutes, her right to study sorcery is denied her. Her character is formed and twisted by patriarchy, and it’s not pretty. She’s angry. She’s sickly hateful, bitter, and fearful. She doesn’t want to bring about some great sense of gender enlightenment — she wants revenge for its crimes. After her friend is murdered by a mob, she strikes the entire city blind:
I wanted to show them darkness. They were all blind and that’s what I made them. The entire town. Men, women, children. I took the very ability that they chose not to use. Mostly everyone went silent. Some clawed at their eyes. Some still reached around trying to inflict violence on whoever they could touch. Children whimpered… Bastards. Let them stumble around in the darkness.
Obviously, the censorious little liberal in my heart is shifting uncomfortably in her seat. The children, too, Onyesonwu? Surely that’s a disproportionately harsh punishment. But there’s apparently a deeper layer in my animal brain that is savagely satisfied with the narrative. I think about everything from the Kitty Genovese murder to the Dehli gang rape to the use of HIV as a weapon of war, and I think, wrongly or rightly, let them stumble around in the darkness.
And that’s the power of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. It isn’t an easy story. It does not sit lightly in your mind, because you know the fictionalized horrors of Okorafor’s Africa are not really fictional at all. Her landscape of red sand and rusting iron makes tremors in your mind, and all your other beloved fantasy worlds seem suddenly like scenes from a bad community theater production: bright, cheery, and gaudily fake. I might never reread it, but it’s a book that should be read.