Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Beth has already done a short review on this book so here I am to give a longer, spoilerier review. This is a dystopian novel set in a future post-nuclear-holocaust Sudan. It follows the life of Oyesonwu, a woman born of rape and blessed with magic powers that she will use to change the world. This novel did not shy away from presenting the horror of rape, weaponized rape, genocide and female genital mutilation. Okorafor has a powerful voice and I am really glad to have read this book. I am also looking forward to reading more by this author. After the cut, though, I am going to discuss some problematic things in this novel.

So, I was drawn into the book. I needed to know what happened next to the Onye, her boyfriend and their band of friends has they went on their journey to rewrite the book of life and change the world. I read it way too late into the night after I’d already had long days and when I knew I had to be up early in the morning. It captivated me. But, after I finished it I noticed that it had a lot of low reviews mixed in with the other reviews on goodreads and I read some of them to see what people didn’t like. Since I finished the book over a month ago, I’ve had some time to think about the novel and other people’s reactions to it. Some reviewers seemed to think that the book was just your standard dystopian novel set someplace completely different. Normally, this would bother me. For example, when James Cameron set Fern Gully in space, I wasn’t impressed. But, Okorafor’s post-apocalyptic Africa is authentic. The landscape felt real (for a magical future), the characters were real, the mythos was filled out and I didn’t feel it was wanting. I do think that I would like to read more novels set in Africa and discuss African experiences and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the best of the best from the African continent isn’t all that accessible here in the US. But, I don’t think this book is well-liked simply because it is the only game in town. Related to this complaint is that this novel was just a standard “coming of age” story with a prophesied hero. I thought the rising action of the story and the characters that were well developed enough that this novel was on-par with Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Divergent in terms of being “coming of age” stories. And, in the case of Harry Potter the hero of the story is also prophesied. To dismiss this while celebrating the others seems a little racist to me. (Or worse, since Hunger Games, at least, as been made into a film in which the main heroine has possibly been a little white washed.) The second complaint I saw in a lot of reviews is that the heroine is overpowered. No one can beat her or control her. It is true that Onyesonwu is extremely powerful. But, that is problem that must be resolved through the course of the novel. Onyesonwu has powers. She is a magician and a shape-shifter but because she is a woman and Ewu no one will acknowledge these powers or work with her. For part of the novel she is left to her own devices, not knowing what she is or how to control it. When she finally learns what she is, she is stuck knowing and being powerless to control her own power because of the racism and sexism in society. This was infuriating to read and is definitely part of the rising action of the story. The people in her society would rather live with her as a ticking time bomb who could destroy them all instead of acknowledging her humanity. That the novel spent so much time on this and her development I don’t think was an accident but instead an extended opportunity for us as readers to consider how our choices as a society contributes to some of the problems that we have in our society. A third complaint that people had was that timely issues such as weaponized rape and female genital mutilation were brought up but just used as plot devices and not addressed. And, I can see that. If I am going to question GoT using rape as a plot device I also need to be mindful of other media using rape (and other violent acts) as plot devices. I guess I don’t feel as angry about it in this model because I didn’t see it as gratuitous. I saw it as demonstrating how the different groups of this society treat each other. I saw it as showing us how some groups are invested in tradition, even when the tradition is horrific and injurious of a large segment of the population. Additionally, there were characters in the text the spoke out against these practices. Onyesonwu’s Mother, for example, expressed very strong opinions about female genital mutilation. Some other reviewers had problems with Onyesonwu not killing the evil wizard she had set out to murder, to be merciful and wearing that mercy as a badge of honor, while being responsible for the deaths of thousands of others. And, I agree with this complaint. We go to all this trouble to show that all lives have value and that discrimination is bad and then we turn around and indiscriminately kill another segment of the population because of who they are. That seemed like it was a lazy way to end the novel quickly. And, that brings me to the last thing that is a little off about the novel. I felt rushed at the end. I knew it was coming but I also wanted more details. I wanted their to be a bigger denouement. I wanted more aftermath. But, because of the structure of the novel, total spoiler here, it ended with the heroine.

All in all, I enjoyed this novel immensely but there were many things about it that have given me pause.

2 thoughts on “Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

  1. Pingback: Gratitude 2015 | 2 Women, So Many Books

  2. Pingback: Coming to a TV near you | 2 Women, So Many Books

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