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Who Fears Death cover

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor's debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

Onyesonwu is born the daughter of rape, of an Okeke woman by a Nuru man. The Okeke are a slave race, whose attempt at rebellion has triggered a wave of genocides. Onyesonwu's mother, the survivor of one such attack, fled east, and after several years wandering the desert with her daughter has settled in an Okeke village yet to see the genocidal rage of the Nuru. She herself has married, but her daughter Onyesonwu, with her sandy colored skin, hair, and freckles, is a marker as permanent as her own broken voice.

Onyesonwu and her friend Mwita—later to become her husband—are both Ewu. Ewu, the children of Nuru and Okeke, and assumed always to be the children of rape, apparently always look the same, are always violent, and are always unteachable. These markers and prejudices shape Onyesonwu's life, fuel her anger at the world and give her something to resist. Onyesonwu exists in a state of permanent rebellion, initially against her mother—Onyesonwu insists on the clitoridectomy that will ensure herself a place in Okeke society—but later and more usefully, against the constraints which society constructs both around her racial status and her gender. In particular, Onyesonwu demands that she be trained as a sorcerer, nagging the local sorcerer and demonstrating her emerging powers until, with persuasion from his apprentice, Mwita, he gives in.

Both Onyesonwu and Mwita seek to challenge the prejudices that hem them in through their training as sorcerers, but while Mwita rejects the constraints of gender for himself, and for Onyesonwu on a wider scale, he tries to enforce them in their relationship. Onyesonwu succeeds in the training while Mwita fails, becoming a healer, a role he associates with women, and this tension comes out in his belief that he can control the information Onyesonwu receives and act as her guide to the magic she wields.

In the second part of the story, Onyesonwu wins through to be trained as a sorceress and in the process discovers that she will die by stoning. This, it is explained by her Master, is proof that she is the one predicted by a Nuru prophecy, who will change everything. This triggers Onyesonwu's quest, on which she takes her three female friends, Binta, Luyu, and Diti, with whom she underwent the ritual clitoridectomy; Mwita, with whom she is sleeping; and a boy called Fanasi who is in love with Diti. The quest succeeds. Onyesonwu, with the help of Mwita and Binta, kills the sorcerer who has turned slavery into genocide. Mwita is killed in the process, Bwinta shortly after, and when we leave Onyesonwu her stoning is imminent, and eventually written up by a young woman who has interviewed her beforehand—revealing that it is the interview we are reading. Incidentally—and it is incidentally—Onyesonwu has wiped out all the men in the surrounding area, and left all the women pregnant.

Within this short summary are hints at the problems with this book. The logic of the magical world has not always been thought through: magic becomes, too often, a fix, a way to remove trauma. Onyesonwu reverses her own clitoridectomy during a moment when she is infused with her power, and later, when she realises that the operation came with a juju that ensured the girls would become ill if they attempted sex—something that has failed to protect Binta from her predatory father, is frustrating Fanasi and Diti, and is making the sex-friendly Luyu furious—Onyesonwu also reverses theirs. But apart from the way the intial trauma is simply wiped, and the emotional consequences of its undoing are left unexplored it is utterly unclear why, if Onyesonwu is capable of regrowing body parts, she does not subsequently tackle the imprinting of her hand with a magical worm by her sorcerer father by cutting off her hand and growing it back. Compared to the trauma she experiences instead, it would have been painful, but simple.

Who Fears Death is written in an almost classic "YA first person introspective-retrospective" style. The book is narrated by Onyesonwu just prior—as we later learn—to her execution, and perhaps in real life that would justify its deadening effect on the narrative, but fiction is not real life, and the result is curiously flat. Scenes of horror, such as Onyesonwu's narration of her mother's rape, or her own murder of the men of the sorcerer's village, are bleached. Even more problematic is that the effect of the introspective aspect of the narrative is that different types of trauma all receive the same treatment, so that the trauma of the clitoridectomy becomes equal with the trauma of seeing her friend Binta killed becomes equal with the "trauma" of watching her friends squabble in the desert.

Onyesonwu's narrative is as intensely focussed on power relations between her friends as it is with power relations between herself and her sorcerous biological father. Again, this is one of those things that may actually be very true to life: teenagers—and Onyesonwu is a teen—are perfectly capable of regarding friendship politics as infinitely more important than a family shattering crisis, but this makes for oddly balanced fiction.

It is very unclear whether Who Fears Death is intended to be a science fiction novel with a quest narrative of preventing genocide and saving the world, or whether it is intended to be a YA story of girls' bonding, friendship, bullying, and their courtship problems. The story of rape and genocide begins and ends the novel. It is what begins Onyesonwu, and it can be understood as being carried with her as a theme no matter what she is or does. But it is also very much pushed to one side within the narrative itself. While the genocide clearly pushes Onyesonwu to action and to her quest, her companions—in almost classic fairy tale structure—follow her. Their political motivation, spurred by a vision, is tenuous. What matters is their love for Onyesonwu and whether this will hold true.

Almost two thirds of the novel are spent on the journey Onyesonwu, Mwita, and her female friends take towards the heart of the genocide, the sorcerer who is both Onyesonwu's father and Mwita's first Master. For much of the time in the desert the action, such as it is, is Onyesonwu, Mwita, Binta, Diti, and Luyu arguing over relationship dynamics, which in this book are not unlike those in the movie Heathers. Onyesonwu, as the marginal girl, spends much of her time seeking to exert her authority over her female friends, at least two of whom, Luyu and Diti, have been understood as leaders, and the third of whom, Binta, was the most popular of girls (because as a victim of abuse she is understood by her culture to be so beautiful even her father could not resist her). On one level, that Onyesonwu should seek to assert her authority may be vital to the success of the quest, but that it becomes the focus of the central part of the book leads to what begins to feel like a moral vacancy at Onyesonwu's heart, an inability or unwillingness to examine or criticize her own actions.

It becomes clear at various points within the text that Onyesonwu is a highly privileged pawn of both her fate and of the sorcerers who manipulate her. Over and over again Onyesonwu is the recipient of information which she simply accepts (in often overly direct infodumps). She is passed from Master to Master. Perhaps the weakest moment is when she meets Sola, the paper-white sorcerer who trained her own Master, Mwita, and, it turns out, also trained her father, who, it appears, "is serious bad news" (p. 316). "For twenty years, he was my child. My son. I will not go into the details. Just know that it was right and then it went wrong" (p. 317). Onyesonwu, it seems, is the child of Darth Vader. It is Mwita who holds critical secrets and dispenses critical information as he chooses, such as the rather vital knowledge that Onyesonwu's mother is an alu who can split herself and send her spirit out to talk to people, and who had herself refused to be trained as a sorcerer, reinforcing his insistence that as a male he should have ultimate influence (if not authority). In an intensely destinarian fantasy the result is that Onyesonwu is revealed as the child of a superwoman (who can, almost inevitably, fly like as a bird), and her mission is made a lot easier when her mother takes on the mantle of John the Baptist, wandering in spirit ahead of her daughter, predicting her arrival.

All of these elements feed back into a sense that Onyesonwu, while uttering the rhetoric of moral responsibility is neither in control of her own fate—a common theme in destinarian fantasy—nor responsible for her own actions. Onyesonwu's killing powers are described nebulously, and are frequently an uncontrolled side effect of her own decisions, permitted collateral damage if you will. By the end of the novel these factors construct a picture of an amoral superwoman who, for all her rhetorical rejection of violence during her period in the desert, is the single most violent individual we meet, far surpassing her genocidal father. The collateral damage that Onyesonwu inflicts in killing her father is, I suppose, justified by the prevention of the harm he wished to whip up, but all this relies first on the belief, pushed rather hard towards the end, that the genocide to be is the result solely of his actions—and not, as is hinted at elsewhere in the novel, a consequence of social and economic factors embedded in generations of persecution—and second, on a moral formula that holds that it is justifiable to kill in order to prevent a predicted attack, that it is the only way, that if the moment is allowed to pass then the predicted is inevitable. This is the logic of the attack on Nagasaki, and the current American, British et al. "involvement" in Iraq. There is no other way. Onyesonwu leaves every woman in the town pregnant. Technically this is not rape, but it is a violation, and in a culture where mixed race children are loathed and where one purpose of weaponised rape is precisely to destroy a culture through the creation of mixed race children, it is a very precise piece of cultural vengeance.

The section titles of Who Fears Death are almost ostentatiously those of the quest fantasy: Becoming; Student; Warrior. The first part is the classic "discovery of power" narrative of the bildungsroman fantasy. Onyesonwu, feisty, railing at the dual discrimination of gender and racial prejudice to which is added the prejudice against those born of rape, battles with her society to be accepted as an adult and with the town's sorcerer to be trained. She partially wins the first battle, and clearly wins the second. But the second part of her story is a growth into authority, rather than a growth into knowledge, and it is primarily authority over the disposition of her friends' lives. The third part, which might classically be the growth into the application of this power is oddly light weight and directly contradicts some of the lessons Onyesonwu has claimed to have acquired. The result is disturbing, and not for the right reasons.

Farah Mendlesohn is the author of The Inter-Galactic Playground, and the editor of On Joanna Russ, both nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year. She edited the journal Foundation for six years.



Farah Mendlesohn is the author of The Inter-Galactic Playground, and the editor of On Joanna Russ, both nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year. She edited the journal Foundation for six years. Her latest book is The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein: available from all e-book stores.
3 comments on “Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor”

I found this book considerably more than the reviewer did, it would seem. Some of the context and the critique provided here are useful, but on the whole the review doesn't convince in taking a critique of the book. Two specific points I found puzzling:
-Is it so self-evident that the book's ambivalent use of YA format is a problem?
-The ethical logic of the book leads directly to parallels with the Bush Doctrine? Is that really the only necessary conclusion?
In any case, it's always interesting to see a different and more critical assessment, for all that I think this particular book is being sold short, and that there is a lot more complexity in the assessment of gender, violence and societal norms.

Not to cross-pollinate sites but there is another good (and thorough) review of this book made by Jonathan McCalmont (a reviewer often seen here at Strange Horizons) for the Zone SF.
Who Fears Death
Worth reading I think, and suggests some of the same issues this reviewer had with the novel.
E.

Great review Farah.
You're quite correct to pick up on the relationship with Mwita as it struck me as very much a reflection of the book's flirtation with but ultimate retreat from moral complexity.
As you note, Mwita is 'unmanned' by Onyesonwu's greater power and access as well as the fact that he is forced to take on the woman's role of being a healer. However, despite being denied traditional male roles, Mwita is still very much the sensible and rational member of the relationship while Onyesonwu -- despite her (supreme) social status as Saviour to the Okeke -- is over-emotional to the point of hysteria. I would not hesitate in calling her 'Shrill'.
If Onyesonwu and Mwita's relationship is supposed to challenge traditional gender roles then why is it that Mwita is always the one with the correct answers?

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