Friday, October 22, 2010

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor - A Review

Post-apocalyptic stories don't get much better than this.  You've got vast deserts, some dusty broken-down computers, strange spirits, white metallic spiders, genocide, and, for many of the male characters, a misogynist world view.  This is the story of Onyesonwu; the literal translation is, "Who fears death"  She was born from rape.  Her mother, an Okeke woman, was raped by a Nuru general when her village was brutally attacked.  She escaped and wandered the desert, pregnant, eventually giving birth to her daughter.

The story itself is pretty simple: Onyesonwu grows to be a headstrong child, not only because she is a woman with powerful sorcery who is refused the teachings of the Mystic Points because she is a woman; but also, she is Ewu - a half-breed, sand-colored, part Nuru and Okeke, a child born of violence who, it is believed, will bring more violence.  Onyesonwu doesn't want to believe that she is violent - she who sings desert songs and brings owls and other animals to her shoulder, she who can shapeshift into vultures - but it was prophesied the Great Book would be rewritten.  Only Onyesonwu knows if she is the bringer of this change.  But she is haunted by her evil biological father who is trying to kill her.

It's what's going on underneath the story that makes it compelling.  Usually, that's case, I suppose, but in Who Fears Death there's just so much of it!  There's the plight of women, who - except in rare instances - have been relegated to the sidelines of society, taught that a man is her owner.  Onyesonwu must overcome the prejudices and ignorance of a male-dominated world if she is to stand any chance of defeating her biological father and rewriting the Great Book.

Genocide is rampant.  Nurus are killing Okekes by the thousands and Okeke rebels are fighting back, those that can.  The story also deals with how inhumane humans can be to each other, based on the color of their skin, or the teachings from a book written hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago. 

Let's not forget technology.  Everywhere: rusty computers, static cell phones, the remnants of a technological society gone wrong.  Who Fears Death is not afraid of talking about what happens when technology gets the better of us, and what becomes of us after.

It can be frightening to look at the world Okorafor has created because it isn't so different from our own.  In fact, there were times I questioned if this was set in a post-apocalyptic world or in modern day Somalia.  That the kind of things happening in Okorafor's story are happening in the real world - now - is heartbreaking and moving.  Okorafor wrote a powerful novel that stands as a centerpiece for the problems of the world without sacrificing its own story.  That takes guts.  And love - because this is also a love story, of the cruelest, fullest kind. It doesn't get more Highly Recommended.

-Dustin J Monk

1 comment:

  1. This looks like a very interesting book. I may have to look into it. Thanks for the review of it!