Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest review of WHO FEARS DEATH

I am grateful to Anika of WriteBlack for this review:

In Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor invites you on a trip to post-apocalyptic east Africa, a world where computers and e-books are mostly just trash, cactus candy is a treat and oceans are considered myths.

If you elect to take the trip, you won’t regret it.

Your guide will be Onyesonwu,  a young girl whose name means “Who fears death?,” born to a woman of the Okeke people who is raped by a man of the Nuru, an enemy tribe. Children like Onyesonwu who are products of the two tribes are known as Ewu and are easily distinguished by their sand-colored hair and skin.

Okorafor is best known as a young-adult novelist (The Shadow Speaker came close but did not end my probably unreasonable prejudice against young-adult books). She used this, her first book for adults, to muse on the nature of bigotry, love, faith, sex and independent women -- all wrapped in a shell of magical realism.

Onyesonwu, who is a  young child when we meet her, is trying to understand why most people  hate her on sight. She’s something of an outcast even in Jwahir, the town where she grows up. Luckily, she’s much loved by her mother, stepfather and eventually Mwita, the mysterious Ewu boy she meets one day. After a fateful decision, she even has three close girlfriends.

Her world has less technology than ours, but is no less complex, especially because everyone she knows accepts the reality and role of juju, or magic, in their lives. Onyesonwu soon finds she has a facility for shapeshifting and traveling between the physical and spirit worlds, so she seeks training from people who know more about sorcery than she.

It is through this training and her exploration of her abilities that she realizes that her Sauron-like biological father, Daib, himself a powerful and violent sorcerer, wants her dead. She spends the next eight years dealing with the ramifications of her discovery and coming to terms with her terrible -- wonderful --  fate.

This is the origin story of a mystical but fatalistic superheroine, driven to redeem her family and her people. She is Jael, in the tent with Sisera, raising a spike. She is Neo, manipulating the Matrix. She is Eli, a vessel for the world’s most important book. She is the Dark Knight, betrayed, but willing to face her fears and her betrayer for the good of others. She is (a more fully developed) Storm, the wind-rider.

She is still a teen with all the confusion native to that state, though. Onyesonwu and the world she inhabits are not pleasant to get to know. Her blistering temper tests the reader’s patience. Violence and rape are everpresent in this world, both thematically and as explicit text.  It’s shocking to western eyes when Onyesonwu justifies female circumcision -- a procedure so hated in the western world that it’s been rebranded as genital mutilation -- and even more shocking to read about characters accepting and even anticipating their own eventual deaths.

But Okorafor balances dark with light where she can. When Onyesonwu takes flight over the desert with a dragon-like creature, it’s almost impossible not to feel her wonder. Mwita’s declaration of his love and his quiet steadiness make him as impressive as any romance-novel hero.

Some elements of Who Fears Death are dubious or incredibly frustrating. A secondary character whom we’re meant to take quite seriously at one point intones a phrase that is the chorus to a Schoolhouse Rock song (I won’t spoil the moment for you, but if it doesn’t distract you, you’re a better person than I). Far too much of the story is set in Jwahir, an unfortunate development that makes the final third of the book and the climactic battle seem terribly rushed.

Those failures are minor irritants.

Ultimately, Who Fears Death is a taste of something really good, but not quite delicious. Promising, tantalizing, but just a sprinkle or two of spice away from being truly transcendent.

Grade: B-


evelyn.n.alfred said...

I enjoyed this story. I found that it took me a while to get "in" to it, but once it had me, I wanted to know how the story ended.

I think I read somewhere - maybe on Nnedi's Twitter page - that she's working on getting to the meat of the story faster...and I think she's spot on with that assessment. I don't mind character/plot development, but I know once I got to the part where Onye started off on her journey to meet Daib, that was the part where the story started taking off for me.

I'd keep reading books written by her, because I think her writing will get better and better, and I love the female protags she creates.

I hope everyone adds it to their TBR pile. Give speculative fiction a chance.

Carleen Brice said...

Evelyn, That's an interesting assessment. Especially since that's a goal of mine too. It's really an art to set up the story enough that the reader isn't confused and knows the characters and what's at stake, yet also get it going right away. I'm working on it too.

Amy said...

This sounds really different from anything else I've read, and I like it and want to read it for that. I don't like the sounds of some things (like justifying fgm), but I'm still interested to see how it's done. Definitely going on my wish list!