Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In a post-apocalyptic future in sub-Saharan Africa, the Nuru are waging war against the Okeke.  The Nurus believe in using rape as a weapon.  They know that raped Okeke women will be shunned by their families and that any children born will be Ewu.  Ewu children are identifiable by their skin color.  It is believed that children conceived in violence will be violent themselves so Ewu are kept outside civilized society. 

After a powerful Nuru sorcerer rapes an Okeke woman, she flees to the desert where she gives birth to a girl who she names Onyesonwu.  It means Who Fears Death.  Onyesonwu grows to be a powerful sorcerer herself but will her society reject the possibility of a savior who is twice an outcast – both Ewu and a woman?

I first heard about this book on a Book Riot list of fantasy books that weren’t set in a pseudo-European setting.  It is a powerful story that stayed with me because of the way it handles systemic misogyny.  From the opening scenes of women being attacked deliberately as a strategy to destabilize a population to the way all women in the book were kept in their very circumscribed place, the book shows example after example of why the rights of women are so important.  I was reading this book during the time that the #womenagainstfeminism discussion was happening on Twitter.  I just wanted to put this book in the hands of people who think that feminism is irrelevant now to show why women need rights.  The bleakness of a society that tells girls that genital mutilation is a special rite that will bring honor to their families when they don’t even know what is being done to them stayed with me long after the book was finished.  It was for driving the lesson home yet again that I gave this a 5 star rating.  I only give that to books that stay with me deeply and that I want to put in people’s hands tell them that they have to read it.

Other reviewers have complained that even though this is an adult book because of the themes, it is structured like a YA novel.  The protagonists are around 20 at the time of the main action.  There is a journey with friends to save the day.  There is a love triangle with some of the characters.  That didn’t bother me.

I wish there had been more world building.  You don’t know what happened to change the world from the world we live in.  It is never discussed.  The story could seem to be taking place in the past most of the time but then a high tech thing is mentioned in passing.  It is a little jarring.

I enjoyed some characters that I hadn’t seen before in fantasy books.  I particularly liked the tribe that lives inside the eye of a sandstorm that their sorcerer controls.  I want a whole book about them.

Don’t let the darkness of the subject scare you off.  (When I tried to get this from the library I couldn’t find it.  I had to ask and then that person had to ask.  There was a whispered conversation between librarians.  “She wants a book called Who Fears Death?”  They both tried to look at me out of the corner of their eyes to see what kind of a freak I was.  The fact that the card catalog page labeled it “Genocide – fiction” probably didn’t help.)  If you like fantasy or magical realism, you will enjoy this book.