Who Fears Death reminds me a lot of Dhalgren, another seminal work of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. Nnedi Okorafor explores the intersections of tradition, sex, and sexuality; of history and intertextuality. The narrative, while slightly more straightforward than Dhalgren, still challenges and requests a certain level of involvement. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to (and probably won’t watch its adaptation), I think I understand why it has captured the imaginations of so many people, and I think I’d enjoy seeing it become a classic.
Onyesonwu, the eponymous narrator, is an Ewu, a child of rape and violence. Suspect as a result of this heritage, she nevertheless becomes the student of her village’s sorcerer, who helps her unlock the powers she will need to take on her Nuru father—also a powerful sorcerer—and quash the Nuru’s final invasion of the East and extermination of the Okeke people. But along the way, Onyesonwu must contend with everything from conflict amongst her friends to her own uncertainty about her role in a vague, intentionally distorted prophecy.
Okorafor links sexuality to her protagonist quite early in the book, with Onyesonwu describing how she undergoes genital mutilation at eleven to make herself “fit in” with the other girls of her village. From there, Onyesonwu feels a bond with the three other girls who undergo the rite at the same time. The connection between sexual pleasure, sexual desire, and the clitoris (or lack thereof) comes up throughout the rest of the book. And this was a little uncomfortable for me. Normally I’m not that sex-repulsed when it comes to reading, but there was something about the constant emphasis on it that made me less than enthusiastic about continuing the book. I don’t think this would be a problem for most readers, but it was definitely a deterrent for me.
Okorafor also challenges a lot of structural misogyny and racism in her world, and that I am much more down for. Onyesonwu is constantly fighting back against stereotypes and expectations imposed upon her as an Ewu woman. Her companions often endure similar treatment. And, of course, the larger story here is about racial and genocidal hatred and actions destroying entire cultures. Who Fears Death is ambitious to the extreme.
This is where I started to run into problems. For reaching so far, Okorafor actually seems to be doing very little with the plot. We start with a kind of bildungsroman set in Onyesonwu’s village and morphing into a quest structure that then meanders semi-aimlessly for about a hundred pages. The actual climactic confrontation between Onyesonwu and her father burns brightly but briefly, and her subsequent death sequence foreshadowed so much near the beginning of the book similarly elapses quickly and disjointedly. For all of the build-up, the book doesn’t deliver much on its promise of a story, preferring instead to take little side quests into minor characters’ lives and concerns.
The thing is, I really like the overall conflict that Okorafor has set up—the one between the Nuru and the Okeke—and the way Onyesonwu has to confront the dangers inherent in how we let things like religious texts (the Great Book) influence our lives and upbringing. There is just so much smart stuff in this book; it’s a very thought-provoking novel—yet even with the short, sometimes one- or two-page chapters, I found myself just … wanting it to be done. That’s never good.
The nice thing about science fiction and fantasy is that you don’t have to like a book much even as you acknowledge its status as a potential classic. I wanted to like Who Fears Death more, because I’d heard so much good about it, but I didn’t. I think, for the right readers, this is going to be a worthwhile and mindblowing experience. For me, though, it was ultimately thin on story, which left it hard for me to want to spend enough time meditating on its substance.