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- Why I read it: Dystopia, shape-shifting, Africa, author's Twitter presence (@Nnedi)
- Disclosure: Bought myself a copy for my Nook. Yay!
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.Sometimes, I need a book to remind me that dystopia isn't dead and buried beneath endless The Hunger Games cash-ins. That everything I love about dystopia - its bleakness, its stark landscapes, its eventual hopefulness - can still be written in a way I find fresh and burn-the-midnight-oil-riveting. Who Fears Death? Definitely that book.
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.
Also a book that begs the question: in the light of the recent popularity of Asian/Eastern inspired fantasy such as Avatar: The Last Airbender on TV (I try to pretend that the movie doesn't exist) and the work of Cindy Pon, Malinda Lo, and many more in the YA world, why has Africa been largely ignored as a setting for paranormal, dystopia, sci-fi, and fantasy? Actually, why has Africa been so often ignored, period? There were an awful lot of things I loved about this book, but what stands out the most is Nnedi Okorafor's rendering of a distant future Africa. Space Age technology and ancient magic and mythology exist side by side, and the result is absolutely breathtaking in its originality and scope.
I especially enjoyed Okorafor's take on juju: as something that exists somewhere between the traditional role of magic in fantasy fiction and science and gadgetry in science fiction. In fact, Who Fears Death seems to take an almost fiendish delight in messing with every plot genre convention you can think of, and it works beautifully - most notably her meshing of an oral narrative style into that of a conventional novel. While I was left bewildered by what was going on in the beginning, I caught on quickly as I got further in and can't imagine Onyesonwu's story being told any other way.
Which brings me, at last, to Onyesonwu herself: enigmatic, terrifying, one of the most engaging I've read in speculative fiction. Okorafor could have focused entirely on her world and left the characters as afterthoughts, and I still would have been thrilled with it. Instead, she created an ever-shifting, complex, and often sinister web of character relationships that lifts the story from merely a good read to a great one. When I describe Onyesonwu as terrifying, I'm not exaggerating: with her pitilessness and cold drive for revenge, I imagine this story could just has easily have been written with Onye as a villain instead of our hero.
I think in a new rush to create so-called "strong" female characters in speculative fiction, we've seen a flood of conventionally good-looking, good-hearted, sword-wielding, unspeakably bland ones instead. Despite all her flaws (or actually, because of them), Onyesonwu truly is without a shadow of a doubt a strong female character. The false coin pales next to the real.
The adult I review usually has some sort of YA crossover appeal, and Who Fears Death is no exception. Much of Nnedi Okorafor's work already falls into the middle grade/YA genre, and in Who Fears Death she tackles themes of change - personal change and societal change - that I think would appeal to many teens. They certainly did to me.
All in all, this was one of the most raw and beautiful things I've read all year. I can't say everyone will love it as much as I did, but I'd like to think even those who hate it will be able to acknowledge its wondrous strangeness as something the world needs more of. Five out of five stars.