Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor

About the Book

An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post- apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.

386 pages (hardcover)
Published on June 1, 2010
Published by DAW
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for me to review by the publisher.

Have you ever put off reading a book because you know you’d love it so much you had to wait for the perfect moment to savor each and every word?

That’s how it was with Who Fears Death. This book has been on my to-read list since it was first published. It took Penguin sending it to me to get me to finally bite the bullet and read it. I didn’t put off reading this book because I thought I’d hate it. In fact, I put off reading it because I knew it would blow my mind.

This book did something to me. It took me on one of those gut wrenching visceral journeys of self-discovery that left me feeling like I had just been through ten years of therapy. That might sound extreme, and it probably is, but you get the idea. This isn’t a book you read lightly. This is a book that will do something to you. The person you start out as when you open Who Fears Death is not the person you end as.

No wonder Who Fears Death has won a bucket ton of awards. This book deserves every one of them.

Who Fears Death is beautifully written, with some incredibly evocative prose which really helps pull the readers into this amalgamation of culture, setting, and content that readers probably have never encountered before. This isn’t just unique; this is truly different from anything else. First, this is set in post-apocalyptic Africa. As you’d expect in Africa, the culture really isn’t like anything I encounter around where I live. That’s part of the gut-punching glory of this. Okorafor really brings you into a new and different time and place, and the cultural realism just makes it all so much more intense. You’re not just reading about this place, this time, and these cultures. You’re truly experiencing them.

It’s really enlightening. I honestly can’t even put into words just how profoundly the world and cultural development moved me. Okorafor somehow managed to make what seems so far away and distant, seem real and present. That’s not just a gift she’s given me, but it is also an education, and quite a bit of enlightenment. The world is a huge, sprawling, fascinating place, and I always cherish the authors show me just how huge and sprawling it really is.

The real reason I love this novel so much is because Okorafor has no problems painting her book in dark and light colors. Onyesonwu is a lonely character, and through the author’s vivid prose, you feel that loneliness keenly. However, she is also amazingly hopeful and rather bright in contrast to so much of what happens around her, and to her.

On the other hand, many of the themes that are dealt with in this book, like sexual and racial violence. Okorafor deals with all of this unflinchingly, and it not only brings some dark reality to the world she has created, but it also puts me in the mind of things that happen in our own world. In this way, Okorafor’s stunning novel has the ability to make readers more conscious of the world around them, and the people in it.

Like I said, this book is a gift.

I have mentioned the prose several times, and I also just mentioned how the darkness seems almost perfectly balanced with all the light in the book. The truth is, Okorafor’s writing is, well, stunning. So much of Who Fears Death is incredible descriptions of gorgeous landscapes, beautiful scenes, intense and gorgeous character development. The violence is handled really well. While it exists, Okorafor’s writing never glorifies it, or elaborates on it. It felt almost like Okorafor is telling the reader to focus on the beauty. Violence happens, but it should never oppress the beauty (even though sometimes it does).

There is magic in this novel, and the basis, the reason the protagonist has magic is also rather tragic. This harkens back to so much of the novel. There are good things, but they are always balanced by a little bit (or a lot) of darkness. The magic, however, fits seamlessly into the novel itself. It never felt unbelievable or out of place. The world just worked and the magic was just the right touch to remind readers that this world isn’t ours, but it could be.

I don’t know what else to say. I really don’t. Who Fears Death just did something to me on a level that very few books have ever managed to touch. Everything about it worked. The writing was intense and amazing. The balance was perfect. The plot was engrossing and the characters were believable. Yes, this book is uncomfortable, but beautifully so. Sometimes readers need to feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes books need to push us out of our comfort zone a little, to remind us that us that we are not islands. The world is a huge, sprawling place, and while I read this book, Okorafor reminded me of that fact.

Everyone should read this. It’s not fantasy. It’s not science fiction. It just is. Who Fears Death refuses to be defined. It is too grand, to epic, too intense to pin down. It’s too human. It shows us an uncomfortable world, and reminds us that, despite the ugliness all around us, this world still is a beautiful place, and every person in it has an incredible story to tell.


5/5 stars

2 Responses

  • Who Fears Death, though I only read it a year and a half ago, leaped onto my list of all time favorite books. You are so right in saying that the book changed you. It changed me too, especially in being able to envision a future where men and women co-exist as equals while maintaining their wonderful differences. My review is here: http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2012/08/who-fears-death_3086.html

  • I figured you’d end up appreciating this one! One of the reasons I like it is because it’s an uncomfortable read. It’s not meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to expand your worldview and understanding. It’s the kind of book that leaves you just a little bit changed at the end.

    (It’s also the book that got me hooked on Okorafor’s writing, and now I want to devour everything she’s ever written!)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.