Saturday, July 9, 2011

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor - Not Onyesonwu

Pros: Quite different from anything you've read in a while
Cons: The ending is slap-dash and confusing

The Bottom Line: Time to read a book that puts all the touchy issues out there without preaching about them. It makes you think, but doesn't force you to.

Welcome to post-apocalyptic Africa. The Nuru and Okeke are killing each other. For years the Okeke have been slaves to the Nuru, but now they are trying to rise up, and the Nuru put them down in return. Onyesonwu is an Ewu child - a child of violence (rape). She is shunned and feared. But she has extraordinary powers. She can shape shift. She can visit the spirit world. And now she is about to embark on a journey that will change the lives and the history of the people of her world. Now it is time to face the meaning of her name - who fears death.

Despite the darkness in this book, it was a great change from everything I'm accustomed to reading. I haven't ventured to another continent for a while, and I honestly don't think I've ever been to Africa in a novel (at least, not that I can remember), much less a post-apocalyptic version. The author, Nnedi Okorafor, doesn't hesitate to bring up a lot of topics people usually prefer to leave out of their work or at least mellow out a little. In here you'll get genocide, rape, racism, sexism, female circumcision, and more. Don't let that scare you away from this book though, really. The things Okorafor uses aren't pushed at you in some agenda. She uses all of these elements as story elements. They further the plot, and each has significance. Yes, even the cricumsicion.

Now, if you try to attach some sort of similarities to skin color in Okorafor's story and today - don't. People have been trying to figure it out and she does in some interviews mention where she got inspired, but overall, this is the future folks, and people don't have quite the same skin color as they do now. This isn't a white vs. black thing - it's a Nuru vs. Okeke thing, both cultures that don't actually exist in reality. Still, the concept of slavery and suppression does exist and are meant for the story and hopefully to make one think.

Onyesonwu is an interesting character. You'll often root for her because she goes through so many awful things, and still at other times you'll wish she would just chill out a little. She can be impulsive, quick to anger, and emotional at moments when doing the opposite would serve her better. Usually she doesn't do the opposite because someone is telling her to and obeying isn't exactly is something Onye is fond of doing. Still, you'll hope she wins and that the ending won't be what you expect - even if you know what it will be about halfway through the book. And even Onye knows, but she perseveres.

I was glad that Okorafor utilized so many other characters. Mwita, Onye's soulmate, is a great guy and I really liked him. She also has several friends who made Onye's ordeal a little better. At first I was worried they might just fade away, but they stuck around, which was nice because they added some extra dimension to the story as well.

I don't want to get into things too much because I don't want to spoil anything, but I do have to say that the ending could have been better. Not different - just worked on a little more. This book was the June reading for Calico Reaction's book club, and pretty much everyone agreed that the ending was rushed. Even now I'm not exactly sure what Okorafor wanted to do or what she intended. I'm not really sure or even convinced about a few things, and disappointed in at least one aspect, but it's not a very big one.

But if you're good with visiting a genocidal area of post-apocalypse Africa, interested in seeing magic in it's most powerful forms, and can handle some touchy subjects (I had a Darth Vader "NOOO!" moment when the circumcision rolled around. Not so much because it was graphic or I didn't want to read it, but just because I'm aware of how many issues that awful practice can lead to and just....BAD, you know), then you'll read this book morning until night hoping that everything works out in the end...and hey, maybe it does...


Originally posted on

Notes from the playlist: "I Can Carry You" by James Newton Howard

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