Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Earlier this year, as I was doing research for my MFA paper, Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death kept coming up as “the book I need to read.” Since I always do as I’m told, I downloaded it to my Kindle and proceeded to get lost in Okorafor’s fantastical world.
Who Fears Death follows the story of a young woman, Onyesonwu, which literally means “who fears death,” as she develops her magical abilities and learns her purpose. Onyesonwu, or Onye, was the product of a rape by a powerful sorcerer, therefore she displays tremendous magical powers that eventually lead her to learn that she is prophesied to bring peace to the two warring peoples. To do so, she must face her death hence her name.
One of Okorafor’s strengths is the completely real and intricate world she creates. The world of the novel appears to be a post-apocalyptic world where two nations, reminiscent of African culture, exists. The people have returned to a simpler way of life yet still use some modern technology. This detail grounds the story into our reality and allows us to recognize a possible future. The spiritual world that accompanies Okorafor’s “real world” is as rich and complex as Onye’s physical world. One lovely thread woven throughout the novel is the influence the “Great Book” had on the characters. None of the “Great Book” is revealed to the reader, but the character’s beliefs are are so strong that one has to believe Okorafor wrote the “Great Book” before writing this novel, as it contains all the rules for Onye’s world.
Another of Okorafor’s strengths is her characters. Onye is a complex character who constantly observes and reflects on her world, yet she has her faults, such as a quick temper. Her companion, Mwita, is a realistic portrayal of a spouse. He challenges her, yet is loving at the same time. Their love story doesn’t dominate the novel which I found refreshing. It was in the background, just another part of her life, as it is within a marriage. The are numerous other characters that fill Onye’s world, each distinct with their own foibles themselves. Onye’s interactions with all the different characters is the heart of the novel.
Since it was published in 2010, Who Fears Death has racked up a number of awards, including the 2012 Kindred Award, the 2011 World Fantasy Award, and was an 2010 Nebula Award nominee. After reading this lush novel, it is not hard to see why it has been so successful. Onye and her world sticks with you long after you have closed the novel’s pages. It burrows into your heart, calling for you to return. This is one novel I will read, no lose myself into, over and over again.