Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Dystopian fiction, multi-cultural fiction
Publisher: Daw Books, Inc.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Review copy from publisher
First line: My life fell apart when I was sixteen.
Normally, I write my own plot synopses for my reviews, but this book is so different than anything I’ve ever read that I’m not sure where to start. After reading the excellent cover blurb, I know I couldn’t do any better, so I am going to be lazy and let the cover do the talking for me:
In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. After years of enslaving the Okeke people, the Nuru tribe has decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke tribe for good. An Okeke woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different – special – she names her child Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient tongue.
From a young age, stubborn, willful Onyesonwu is trouble. It doesn’t take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu – a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by both tribes.
But Onye is not the average Ewu. As a child, Onye’s singing attracts owls. By the age of eleven, she can change into a vulture. But these amazing abilities are merely the first glimmers of remarkable and unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities – soon she can manipulate matter and flesh, or travel beyond into the spiritual world. During an inadvertent visit to this other realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would-be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother’s people, she meets with frustrating prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onyesonwu persists.
Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home on a quest that will be perilous in ways that Onyesonwu can not possibly imagine. For this journey will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately to learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death?
Honestly, I am feeling quite inadequate to convey to you how awesome and amazing this book is. I have had it on my review shelf for awhile – it was a copy sent to me by the publisher, and after reading the blurb, I thought, “Does the person who sent this to me read my blog?” because it is so completely different from what I normally read. I am so very glad that I picked it up anyway, because I would have missed out on a truly brilliant book.
Okorafor’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Africa is so fully formed, so vividly described, that, even now, a couple days after finishing the book, I can see the ravaged desert in my mind. I can picture Onye and Mwita, her true love; the sorcerers Aro and Sola; the Red People and their dust storm; Onye’s loyal friend, Luyu. In fact, these people and the places they inhabit became so real to me that I have dreamed about them the past couple of nights, long after I cried over the last few pages.
Onye’s story is a story of magic, of love, of being a woman. it’s the story of a mother’s amazing love for a daughter conceived in the most horrific circumstances; the story of true love that surpasses all; of finding and fulfilling one’s destiny in the face of insurmountable odds. Through Onye’s story, the author deals with racism, prejudice, and sexual discrimination. Onye is an amazingly strong young woman, full of passion for her world and a desire to stop the horrors being committed in the name of a religion that feeds prejudice and hatred.
I know that my words aren’t enough to convey how much this book moved me, and so I hope that you will just trust me when I say that you must read Onyesonwu’s story for yourself.