review

Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

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This was one of those books that started out with such promise; it showed such originiality, such inticing world building, such hope! But slowly, it began to scatter broken promises. It continuously posed questions it wouldn’t answer, and make mistakes it didn’t take accountability for. Because of this not only did I finish this book feeling disappointed, I also felt very, very angry.

Who Fears Death is the story of a mixed-race, African girl who is born of rape. Already an interesting premise. This girl (who I shall refer to as Onye as I can’t pronounce her full name) is raised in the desert until she is six, when her mother decides to take her to a village so Onye can realize her potential as a sorceress and fulfill the prophecy of saving the Okeke (black) people from the evil rule of the Nuru (white) people and also to kill her evil biological father. Along the way she faces opression due to her skin colour and gender.

Now as much as I loved the world-building in this book, as much as I loved the African vibe and the African magic system, this book was advertised as post-apocalyptic. It was not post-apocalyptic. If it weren’t for the vague references to computers and digital cameras to narrow down the time period, this could have taken place at any point in history, especially because of the main plot points of the novel. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the book turned out to be really good anyway (it didn’t), but I picked it up because I was interested in a post-apocalyptic dytopia set in a future Africa. Since there was nothing post-apocalyptic about it, I felt short-changed. Strike one.

The honeymoon period was quickly over with this one. I appreciated the world-building, the concept, the intruige. But once it had settled down I began looking at plot, characters and narrative, as you do. The first thing to really annoy me was the narrative. I don’t know whether this was the author’s choice (probably) but when reading most passages it felt as if the author was always one step ahead of the reader, yet expected the reader to be there with her. We all know people like that right? My boss will often send cryptic emails asking someone to do something without actually remembering to explain what the fuck he means by it. It’s the same with Okorafor; she’ll have a character see something, react to something, talk about the something, then only paragraphs later will she reveal what the something they were reacting to actually was. And she did that all the fucking time. I did not enjoy it.

The second problem I encountered were the characters. Protagonist Onye, who started out as a strong child who took a firm stance against sexism, ended up growing into a complete bitch. As she became more powerful, her likability lessened. It became most obvious in how she treated her friends towards the end of the book. She actually beat one of her friends up (while insulting her magnificently) because her friend had goaded her. It was her friend’s fault, apparently. And when she wronged another friend and said friend calls her out, again she refuses to take the blame.

“Why didn’t you tell me, eh?” She sat down in the sand and sobbed,
“This is life,” I said. “It doesn’t always go the way you think it will.”

Interestingly the love interest Mwita, who I initially hated because he was a sexist pig who once told Onye she should take her own life over her stupidity, ended up being one of the most moral characters in my eyes. And that was an odd feeling.

Overall, I’m still not sure what the author was trying to achieve. There were so many different themes present that were never fully resolved. There was the issue of sexism, only tackled when Onye spoke out about it, and then nothing else came of it. There was the issue of discrimination because of being mixed-race due to the belief that mixed-race people are only ever born of rape and are destined to be violent. Mwita is the only one to really act against this racism, refusing to engage in violence. But Onye does the very opposite and embraces violence and murder, feeling remorse at first but by the end not giving a shit. Way to prove the haters right, Onye.

The main arc is about genocide due to the Nuru people following the “Holy Book” and exterminating the Okeke people. And how does this get resolved at the end of the day? By Onye rewriting their religious text.
That is the strongest message in this book: that genocide is caused by evil, religous people, and it can be solved by one overly powerful sorceress who can just wave a magic wand and change what these people believe in.

I don’t take kindly to that kind of ignorance, and by the end of the 500 page book it was just the icing on the shitting topping of a crapcake. I couldn’t enjoy this as a post-apocalyptic dystopia, because it wasn’t one. I could not enjoy this as a work of fiction because I hated the characters, the pacing was terrible and the narrative infuriated me. I couldn’t enjoy this as a commentary on important issues because the sexism issue barely happened, the racism issue was badly handled and as for the religious issue…

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

  1. I keep trying to decide whether or not to read this book, because as you say, the magic and worldbuilding do sound interesting, but I’m trying to avoid deeply depressing stories at this time…at least in fiction.

    It’s really unfortunate that Okorafor would make her heroine so unlikable when she gains power — I mean, isn’t that what we’re trying to work away from, the idea that powerful women are something to resent/fear/distrust/etc?

    And the ending really does sound like a deus-ex-machina cop-out. I felt similarly about how she ended Akata Witch. She built up the villain as this incredibly powerful serial killer, and then doesn’t follow through; he gets defeated way too quickly and easily.

    P.S. I’d probably put a spoiler warning at the beginning, since you do talk about the ending, and how exactly the heroine solves the major conflict.

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    • I don’t know how I glazed over that spoiler – i do apologize.
      Will update!

      And yeah i think that’s the biggest problem i had with the book – how the MC goes against everything the book should be trying to achieve

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      • It’s cool; I like the spoiler banner you added πŸ™‚ And in terms of me reading the book, it does help me to know that even the awesome magic and worldbuilding might not get as strong a payoff as they deserve. I’ll know what maybe (not) to expect if/when I do give the book a try.

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