Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
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.

This book was recommended to me by a friend over a year ago, and I finally got around to reading it last month! I must say, it’s really nice to be able to talk to a friend about a book as you read it — the moments where you gasp, the ones that devastate you, and the plot twists that make you really excited. I’m usually the one who reads books and recommends books to my friends, so it’s a rare and welcome experience to be able to discuss with someone as I experience a book for the first time!

I will say that as much as I enjoyed this book, I wish I had been warned about how brutal the first two or three chapters would be. Since these events are so early in the book, I don’t feel like these trigger warnings are really “spoilery”: this book opens with a graphic rape and female genital mutilation.

I loved Onye’s rule-breaking and indomitable spirit throughout this book. She goes through a lot, and her journey from a village girl to a sorceress who tries to end her people’s genocide was incredible. Okorafor touches on sexism and gender roles throughout Onye’s journey, but also explores what it’s like to be a pariah and how that influences your sense of community and belonging. I also liked how this book plays with the idea of truth. There are many secrets and different versions of the same events in this story, and even in the end you stumble upon a framing device that sort of resets your understanding of previous events.

I also really appreciated how well Nnedi Okorafor blended elements of African spiritualism with futuristic technology. She has been a strong advocate of the phrase “Africanfuturism” rather than “Afrofuturism” to describe her work, and you can see her thoughts on the nuances of the phrasing here.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy thought-provoking and challenging works of science fiction. This story is beautifully written and challenging, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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