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.