Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
I really, really wanted to like this book. I really did. At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the importance of Okorafor’s work. The need for non-Eurocentric fantasy, and especially African based fantasy, in today’s publishing world cannot be overstated. Okorafor’s world, her folklore, had so much potential, but I found that potential was waylaid by overused fantasy tropes, awkward pacing, and a rushed ending.
Onyesonwu is born a child of rape, forever marked by her strange, light brown skin and hair, an outcast among her people. As she and her mother forge a new life for themselves, Onyesonwu discovers a dark power she inherited from her father, and finds that she has a destiny greater than any she could have imagined–she must save her people from genocide.
I loved the setting–the racial war between the Okeke (African) and Nuru (Asian). I loved that Okorafor deals with the harsh realities of some African cultures, showing the societal acceptance as well as the horrors of female genital mutilation. I loved that she painted a fantasy world that draws its foundation from African lore and culture. I loved that her landscape showed the heat of the desert and the life that can be found there.
Yet, for such an original setting, Onyesonwu and her story fell into all the most annoying tropes in the fantasy genre. Onyesonwu is the quintessential Chosen One. She even has a prophecy written about her. She is a misfit, but finds she has great power. Her power, over the course of the book, grows until it acts as a Deus Ex Machina in situation after situation, allowing the main characters to get out of trouble time and time again. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences–consequences and tragedy are many–but there seems to be few rules to Onyesonwu’s power–and thus, no limit.
The story itself is told in a stilted voice, with short, jarring sentences that took me a long time to get used to. Sometimes the story slowed almost to a halt, with long sequences focused on petty squabbling and love triangles between Onyesonwu’s friends who I found difficult to care about. And some of the most fascinating places–such as the House of Ogsubo–were only brushed over. The ending was sadly rushed as well, and I found it difficult to fully understand what had just happened.
Apparently, HBO has picked up the rights to this book, hoping for its next Game of Thrones-esque series. Who Fears Death is certainly violent and dark enough for HBO, so I imagine it will make a decent series. I just wish the book itself had lived up to the promise and importance of its setting.