Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

file_000-7I really liked this book.

Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy epic Who Fears Death is something of a cross between Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler if both had grown up in Africa.

The story follows Onyesonwu, a young woman living in what must be a post-civilization North Africa.  Her culture is clearly based on Africa and the setting is a vast desert like the Sahara, but there are continual mentions of advanced technology familiar to the 21st century.  Though everyone seems much more interested in using magic than technology.  There are no other races in the book, just Africans.

Something has happened to bring this situation about. Or we may be in an alternative North Africa.  The cultures in Ms. Okorafor’s book are very African, at least as far as I can tell.  There is much about female circumcision and its aftermath, much about deadly struggles between tribes like what happened with the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda many years ago.  There are probably many more references to current isses someone more versed in Africa than I am would find.  The questions of exactly where and when we are or how the world came to be like this are never really answered, but that doesn’t matter as far as the story is concerned.

The magic in the book reminded me much more of African novelists like Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o than it did J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis.  But there is enough magic in Who Fears Death to make this a work of fantasy, not of magical realism.

So….Ursula K. LeQuin?….Octavia Butler?

There really are not that many plots in general, in particular in fantasy. Who Fears Death uses the basic plot of A Wizard of Earthsea.  The narrator and main character Onyesonwu realizes at a young age that she has magical powers, much like the Ged in Earthsea.  She learns some on her own, but soon realizes she needs a more qualified and more powerful teachers.  What really makes this novel like A Wizard of Earthsea for me is when Onyesonwu meets her fate through a magical vision and has to travel across her world to face a supreme opponent as a result.  Ged, in Earthsea, unleashes a dark magical force through his own fault which he must leave home in order to defeat.  Onyesonwu meets her own fate through an initiation practice which forces her to see her own death to prove she is a worthy student but her situation is also, in part, the result of her own wilfullness.

Onyesonwu sees herself buried up to her neck in a town square where she is stoned to death.  To prevent this end, or to fulfill it, she must travel across the desert to the town ruled by her biological father who is also her ultimate enemy.  This takes us into Octavia Butler territory.

Not the territory of Kindred but the territory of her more mythic, godlike stories.  Books like Wildseed and Adulthood Rites.  Dark books about women who faced incredible odds not just in the forces against them but in the societies that suppressed them.

Issues of sexual politics, of female sexuality and the power imbalance between men and women are common features in Octavia Butler’s stories.  Who Fears Death deals with all of these as openly, as frankly and as forcefully as Ms. Butler.  This begins with Onyesonwu’s conception because Onyesonwu is a child of rape.  Her mother’s town was invaded by a rival tribe known to force themselves onto the women they capture for the purpose of fathering children who will be outcast.  Onyesonwu is outcast, but this status as a child of two cultures is also what gives her her power.  What if the thing that gives your life purpose is also the result of a terrible wrong committed on your own mother?

While Who Fears Death treads into uncomfortable territory, I found it exciting reading.  I enjoyed characters, those who went along with Onyesonwu on her journey across the desert and those she met along the way.  I like fantasy that travels, something with a sense of real adventure, books like A Wizard of Earthsea.  Who Fears Death delivered the goods as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not a book for children, not young children anyway, but adults who still enjoy a fantastical tale will find Who Fears Death has much to offer.


Posted in African Literature, American Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Novel, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When You’re Down By The River by Christopher Lowe

file_000-4I was drawn to this book by the cover.

When You’re Down by the River was published by BatCat Press in a hand bound edition of 100 numbered copies, each featuring a unique cover, that’s the marbled paper you can see inside the “RIVER” cut out on the cardboard casing the book comes in.

Mine is #85.

It’s a small work of art as well as a collection of four excellent stories.

Mr. Lowe’s stories are more rural versions of those found in Raymond Carver’s work.  Son’s trying to understand fathers, uncles with issues they hope to work out through their nephews.  Searching for that moment of epiphany that doesn’t quite come they way you expected.

I enjoyed them all. They were an added bonus to the beauty of the book itself.



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Maigret in New York by Georges Simenon

file_000-6The trouble with Maigret in New York is clearly stated in the title.

Inspector Maigret should stay in France, preferable in Paris.  I suppose over the course of 75 novels Maigret was bound to leave the country at least once, but I much prefer him when he is at home.

Certain books are associated with certain places–that becomes part of the fun, maybe part of the comfort, of reading them.  Detective fiction is essentially escapist reading which makes the Parisian setting all the more valuable.  Take away the setting results in a less satisfying read.

Still a pretty decent read, though.

Maigret in New York is something of a cross between the usual, dry witted police procedural readers of Simenon expect and a more free wheeling Dashiell Hammet type of tale.  Maigret meets the Continental Op if you will. The plot gets lost and then gets lost again just as it’s about to be found.  In the end Maigret goes home before we’ve found out exactly what was going on.  He reaches a point where he doesn’t care anymore and leaves, generally sick of America anyway.

Which are the fun parts of the book, Maigret complaining about Americans and American culture.  What makes this more fun is that he is complaining about 1930’s America when he could still escape into a theatre showing a Laurel and Hardy film.

Since I escape America of the 2010’s  into Inspector Maigret novels, I enjoyed this one but with is was set in Paris.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, Fiction, French Literature, Noir, Novel, Series, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

file_001-2This review may have spoilers.

Three lovable misfits spend their senior year together, trying to survive life in small town Tennessee where misfits are not exactly welcome, no matter how lovable they are.

The Serpent King is actually a very dark story.  The lead character, though the narrator’s focus will shift between all three, is Dillard Wayne Early, Jr., the son of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher currently in prison for possession of child pornography.  The town wants nothing to do with Dill because of his father; the members of his father’s church want nothing to do with because he refused to take the fall by claiming the pornography found on the preacher’s laptop was really his.

Dill’s fantasy loving friend Travis lives which his abusive alcoholic father and his mother who is still grieving the loss of Travis’s older brother who died in Afghanistan.  Travis dresses like a wizard, carries a staff he carved himself and spends most of his time re-reading his favorite fantasy series.

Lydia, the third member of the group, has a wonderful set of liberal parents who encourage her interest in fashion which she has parlayed into a successful web-blog. Though her success has led to considerable fame, it only serves to further alienate her from her local peers who envy and despise her.

Halfway through the novel things go horribly wrong.

I expect some readers will give up on the book at that point since it does come out of the blue.  Arguably, it’s not needed at all dramatically. There is plenty in the plot already to give the story drama without it, plenty to provide a catalyst for the romance to develop between Dill and Lydia. I admit it, I was tempted.  I think The Sun is Also a Star may have spoiled me a bit.

Tragic events, when they happen in real life, happen without warning. I understand that that is the point here.  Lots of people live through events like this before leaving high school; but lots of people don’t.  It’s my feeling that there was plenty in the The Serpent King for the reader to feel bad about already.  Mr. Zentner didn’t need to go there.

But he did, and he handled the events pretty well. Except for a few passages of dialogue that didn’t quite ring true to me, and a slight over reliance of the pixie-girl saving the boy plot line, I enjoyed The Serpent King and I think the young readers the book is written for will, too. Travis, Dill and Lydia are people many of us would have liked to know back in high school.

It was nice getting a chance to spend time with them in fiction.

Posted in African Literature, Book Review, Fiction, Novel, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Of Flesh and Fur by Duncan Barlow

file_001-1It’s not easy to find these books.  Small, very small, independent press books each of them clearly a labor of love at every step of the way.

I found The Cupboard Press at a writer’s and writing conference in Los Angeles last year, two young people sitting at a table in the vast exhibition hall.  I liked their little books, each small enough to fit into the palm of my hand, just about, the length of a novella whether it really is a novella or a small collection of stories or a slightly experimental long form poem.

My subscription gets me four books a year, one per quarter.  Duncan Barlow’s novella Of Flesh and Fur is the third one I’ve received.

I liked it quite a bit.

What happens after a pack of coyotes has been spotted near a Southern California suburb? A man, recently divorced decides he wants to have a child.  There are women who want his sperm, but none who want him to be involved with the resulting baby.  He turns to cloning. Soon he has a baby boy.

Though he loves his son, clones frequently do not turn out the way their “parents” had hoped for.  This child is fine for a while, kind of wonderful really, until the coyotes appear. Then the boy begins incessantly crying. Day and night, non-stop. Finally his “father” is forced to take drastic action.

I thought it was terrific.  An entertaining story that had me thinking.

I look forward to the arrival of the next edition.

You can order a copy of Of Flesh and Fur or subscribe here.


Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, California, Fantasy, Fiction, Novella | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments