Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Book: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Rating: 4.75/5 songs that sound like the wind
Recommended if you like: Post-apocalyptic settings rife with shape-shifting magic; stories that tend to linger and haunt you long after reading them; tales where words create and sustain their own magical power
First lines: “My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart, yet he died.”
Published: Penguin, 2010; 419 pages
When I bought Who Fears Death, my friend told me that it was hard to read.
There’s a brutal rape in the first few chapters, followed by a story about the genocide of an entire race of people. Obviously hard stuff. Because of this, I waited to read it and the book began to gather dust on my nightstand.
My friend wasn’t really wrong to mention this, per se, but my reasons for not reading it were.
See, the book is hard.
Onyesonwu is a woman born of that rape, but while violence threatens to fill her life, it doesn’t fully. No, not fully. After her mother staggers into the desert of a post-apocalyptic sub-Saharan Africa, Onyesonwu learns to speak by listening to the wind and soon her songs can call forward owls. Her mother recognizes a magic around her and brings her back to a town–to civilization–to grow up.
It’s here where Onyesonwu (or Onye) meets another child born of rape (an Ewu) who, like her, also possesses a sort of magic. In the pages that follow, there’s this amazing training sequence (because don’t we all love those magic training sequences?). Mwita–the boy she finds–trains her in shape-shifting into different forms, from vultures to sparrows. And, well of course, there’s also some love blossoming there. Like THIS:
“As our bodies met, fully, finally, throughout, Mwita reminded me to breathe. As he moved inside of me, he continued to remind me but by this time I wasn’t listening.”
Onye soon realizes that she needs the help of the town’s oldest sorcerer though. Nightmares show her that something much more powerful and dangerous than the prejudices in her town is coming for her. There is another initiation period, followed by another period of intense, sometimes horrifying, training. Through it all, Onye continues to feel the presence of the thing hunting her.
Eventually, Onye decides to hunt it back.
She leaves for the desert with Mwita and a few of her friends to find the thing hunting her. It was at this point in the novel where the world-building really struck a chord for me. Onye remembers her songs of the desert and the wind. The dust storms threaten to consume them, but instead they find a village of travelers–the Vah–who follow just behind the eye of the magically induced storm. Speaking of the sorcerer who controls the storm, she writes:
“He raised his hands and turned his palms to the storm. He spoke something in Vah and turned his hands downward. The ground shuddered as he pressed the storm’s strength to the ground. Ssaiku’s hands strained and I could see the muscles in his neck flexing underneath his wrinkles. All the sand in the air dropped. The sound reminded me of the sounds the Vah people make so often when they speak their language.”
So, yes, there was violence. But, there was also love and magic and triumph and joy. Who Fears Death may be a difficult book, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read. If you do, it will be one of those books that continues to haunt you–the names and places lingering in your mind like a song of the wind.