I’ve been meaning to review Who Fears Death for a month now, and not sure why I’ve been putting it off other than wanting, really wanting to do this extraordinary book justice by what I write. Sometimes, though, you have to just suck it up and accept that it’s better to try and fail to get your thoughts across than kick the topic under the bed and ignore it.
In many ways, I feel too ignorant to properly discuss this book and what it does. I know almost nothing about Africa’s history, modern culture, or any other books or stories which might put this novel better into context. One of my quite appalling realisations while reading it was that I couldn’t think of a single other novel set in Africa that I have read. Ever. So there’s some context for you, about the level of my literary ignorance, if nothing else!
I thought I knew a lot about this book going into it, from having read reviews and the author’s own description of what the book does. So I knew that it would be hard-going, that it tackled some traumatic themes about gender issues, particularly rape and female circumcision. I knew to some extent that it was both science fiction and fantasy, and that it was most definitely not intended for younger readers. I gritted my teeth somewhat, heading into it, because I did suspect it was going to be confronting.
And yes, confronting it most certainly was. Okorafor took what I like to call the “Margo Lanagan” approach in that she introduced some of the most confronting aspects of her book in the early chapters, rather than sneaking them up on readers in the middle or end of the story. The readers are taken through the brutal gang rape of the protagonist’s mother, and also a scene in which the protagonist goes through ritual circumcision in order to better “fit in” to her local community. Both scenes are incredibly hardgoing, and yet there is nothing gratuitous about either. The world of Onyesunwu, whose name means ‘who fears death’ is a world where rape and circumcision hugely affect the lives of women, and establishing this up front is an important aspect of the story.
Death, sexuality, love, friendship and magic are all powerful themes of this story. Onyesunwu’s story is also that of her mother, who was raped as an act of war (in order to be impregnated with a mixed race baby) and yet recovered to raise her daughter and find her a home. Onyesunwu is always marked as an outsider by her skin, and as she becomes a woman discovers another hidden part of herself which marks her as an outsider and a danger to her community: she has magic. It is a long time since I have read a fantasy novel which does anything that feels new and strange with magic, and I was awed at the way that power was described in this narrative. The sense of how hard it would actually be to learn to control magic, and just how dangerous a tool it is and how ripe for corruption, is beautifully conveyed.
Quite apart from our hero being a woman, which is not at all something to forget, the use of the quest narrative in this novel is also important and very different to the norm. There is a grim certainty about it, in that Onye has visions of her own death and in many ways (including the narrative structure of the novel which begins at the end and moves back and forth at times) is on a quest towards that death. The trope of a hero fearing their death and yet succeeding is quite common in Western Literature, but here we have a hero who is certain of her impending death and yet somehow being able to function. There’s an incredible courage about Onye, who never seems to rail against the unfairness of her situation, except for one moment in the story which is very understandable – that is, when the one man who could teach her about her magic refuses to take her on as a student.
Female friendship is another powerful theme here, and it is intricately tied in with sexuality, the sharing of intimate secrets, and with the circumcision that marked the beginning of Onye’s own (rather than that of her mother and fathers) story. Onye becomes close friends with the girls who shared the ritual with her, and they remain a tight enough group that when she sets off on her quest to find and vanquish the evil sorcerer who fathered her, they come along to support her. I very much liked the way that the group of girls represented different dreams and attitudes, and the way that sexuality and relationships impacts on each of them differently. This social aspect of the story often added a much-needed lightness to counterpoint the darkness of Onye’s journey, which is not to say that the issues were trivial – each of the girls is trying to find a path for herself and come to terms with the few options allowed to them in their society, and spending time with each of them allowed the novel to explore womanhood as a whole, rather than just through Onye’s experience as a woman dealing with extraordinary circumstance.
I am reminded of how often in science fiction movies, the sexy and super-extraordinary kick butt heroine is accorded a status entirely separate from other women, even assuming that other women appear in the story at all. Their power and kickbuttness seems to stem from being alone, out of the usual context of female characters. What I love most about Who Fears Death is the way that Onye’s far-from-perfect interactions with her female friends, and their loyalty to her, shows how such relationships can make a female lead stronger rather than in any way detracting from her specialness.
This is not a book that I would recommend without reservations. It is a gutsy, full-blooded read, and there is some quite horrific content above and beyond the early scenes (which would themselves be enough to put off many readers). But I do believe this is an important work of fantasy – post-future trappings aside, I read this mostly in the context of fantasy rather than science fiction – particularly in the way that it reframes the hero’s journey as a task for women. There’s also the issue of race, and how rare it is to find fantasy fiction that has an entire cast made up of POC, and shows that you can use many of the trappings of traditional fantasy without any reference at all to western, anglo culture. I found the post-future African setting absolutely compelling, and rich in detail. I’m the last person to be able to comment on how authentic the setting is (I don’t even like the beach, the desert is my idea of hell), but it felt incredibly real and convincing.
Who Fears Death is the kind of book that blows your preconceptions about fantasy fiction out of the water, and for those who don’t actually have serious trigger issues to consider, I think the overall experience is absolutely worth getting through the discomfort of its more graphic scenes. I don’t imagine myself ever re-reading this book “for fun” but I was highly impressed at how I came away from the stpry feeling uplifted and empowered, despite the grim nature of the content. Onyesunwu is not a heroine I will ever forget.