Thursday, December 9, 2010

Who Fears Death

Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death is a dark fantasy set in post-apocalyptic Africa, many years after the collapse of our current civilization. Members of the dark-skinned, agrarian Okeke tribe are dominated and enslaved by the lighter-skinned, urban Nuru tribe. In fact the Nuru consider themselves to be culturally, intellectually, and morally superior to the Okeke; justification for this relationship comes directly from the Great Book, a holy text filled with fables and myths.
The plot of Who Fears Death is fairly straight forward. Daib, an evil Nuru sorcerer, is planning a military campaign to exterminate the Okeke. Nuru soldiers raid Okeke villages raping and murdering along the way. A byproduct of this is Ewu children, mixed race children who are shunned by both tribes.
The protagonist, Onyesonwu (which means “Who Fears Death”) is an Ewu child. According to a prophecy, Onyesonwu is to become a powerful sorcerer and save the Okeke people by rewriting the Great Book. Naturally, her father is Daib, the evil Nuru sorcerer.

Most of the novel details Onyesonwu’s coming of age. Her female circumcision ceremony is described in detail, as is her discovery and exploration of her magical powers. She is an outcast in her society; she is refused formal magical training because she is a woman, the citizens of her Okeke village fear her because of her heritage, and her father regularly attempts to kill her in her sleep.
In the last part of the novel Onyesonwu leads a small group of friends on a journey into Nuru territory to stop Daib’s genocidal plan. Here is where the novel loses some of its appeal; once Onyesonwu’s teenage companions began having relationship troubles I wanted to stop reading. The book reads more like a young adult novel in this section. Unfortunately this is right when the climactic tension starts building.
Despite the odd teenage love triangle, this is a solid work of fantasy. Without sounding preachy or cliché the novel tackles some tough subjects: wartime rape, violence, gender roles, racism and more. It was refreshing to read such a compelling and creative work. I look forward to Nnedi Okorafor's future releases.

Stop by the library to place Who Fears Death on hold today.


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