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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be widely read.
Who Fears Death is set in (for most of the book) an unnamed (though it's clear that it's somewhere on the African continent) place post-ecological apocalypse. Despite the futuristic setting, unfortunately Okorafor could be writing about now - it could easily be any place in the world that suffers the violence that continues to be shamefully under-reported in this...
Published on 10 Sep 2010 by R. Palmer

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3.0 out of 5 stars Original, effective, but also grim and dispiriting
"Who Fears Death" is a novel set in Africa. In fact, it is a fantasy / science fiction novel set in a postapocalyptic Africa, but to be honest, this only became clear to me very late in the novel.

Our heroine, Onyesonwu, is an "Ewu", a mixed race girl, born as a result of a rape. Permanently an outsider, she is passionate, stubborn, quick to anger, and, it...
Published 22 months ago by Federhirn


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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be widely read., 10 Sep 2010
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This review is from: Who Fears Death (Hardcover)
Who Fears Death is set in (for most of the book) an unnamed (though it's clear that it's somewhere on the African continent) place post-ecological apocalypse. Despite the futuristic setting, unfortunately Okorafor could be writing about now - it could easily be any place in the world that suffers the violence that continues to be shamefully under-reported in this country.

The novel opens in a horrific style. The protagonist (Onyesunwo - whose name means "Who Fears Death?") is the result of a brutal rape. Her mother, an Okeke, whose people are enslaved and persecuted by the Nuru - another people who believe that it is their right to dominate the Okeke. Unfortunately, this is not so far-fetched; the use of rape as a weapon is well documented in the world (if not well-enough known of). Onyesunwo as the product of violence is shunned by the people she goes to live amongst; she looks different, but she is also a reminder to them that they are not at peace. This part of the novel is not easy reading, nor should it be.

That said, while Okorafor refuses to shy from the violence inherent in this type of conflict, where the battlefield moves to the womb, there are a number of other ideas explored that, while no-less painful, are handled sensitively and without judgement. At the age of 11, in common with her peers, Onyesunwo undergoes the rite of circumcision. Correctly this would be described as female genital mutilation. Okorafor successfully makes it clear that this is a practice that is wrong, which no amount of well-meaning moral relativism can excuse. Onyesunwo's mother and beloved adoptive father do not approve of the practice while Onyesunwo doesn't fully understand what it entails and the consequences of submitting to it. As an outcast for something that she clearly has no control over, she sees the ceremony as a way to make her closer to her peers. In this respect, it succeeds. She gains some close friends who will become important to her through the novel. This was incredibily sensitively handled. It would be easy to denounce Onyesunwo for foolishly allowing herself to be scarred in this way, but it's easy to see how these practices persist, how women can become complicit in their own oppression.

Onyeweso introduces herself at the point that her beloved adoptive father died. Events surrounding this make it clear that she is never quite accepted by the people she lives around. In her chronology, she is about to leave on the journey that will define her (and a fair chunk of the novel) but she goes back to the beginning to tell us the story of the early parts of her life at this point.

So far, so worthy. What makes the novel more compelling for me is that while it has a lot to say for itself, it is never didactic. Despite these weighty themes, it manages to avoid being preachy or didactic. It's delivered as a coming of age fantasy tinged with SF themes. Onyeswuso, many of her friends and the people she encounters, have magical abilities. The growing realisation by Onyewuso that she is powerful is entwined with the difficulties she has in growing up. As mentioned previously, some of these trials are peculiar to just some parts of the world, but others are familiar to anyone the world over. Friendship, relationships with parents and, as they get older, the difficulties that there can be in attempting to form relationships with the other sex. All these themes are universal and should mean that this novel is never pigeon-holed as being specific to one area of the world.

Nnedi Okorafor clearly has talent and skill when it comes to writing. She creates believable, rounded characters, always important, but probably more so when your world is infused with fantasy as this is. Her dialogue and description is crisp, almost spare. This lends the book a matter-of-factness essential for the seriousness of her subject matter. It also isn't what I always expect from fantasy (though, that's not to suggest for a second that all fantasy is overly florid, a lot is though - and I think it's a hard thing to get right).

A wonderful novel and one which deserves to be widely read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The first cut, 10 July 2014
I would like to take issue with the assumption that this is some kind of fantasy novel. It is a measure of the dominance of the mechanistic mindset that one can believe in the (predictive) truth of science fiction whereas a model which celebrates the plasticity of the human form is seen only as a legitimate device of the artist. Shape-shifting is real, not imaginary, and the two factors that stand in the way of acceptance of this fact are cultural conditioning and our own (lack of) experience.

An important sub-theme of this extraordinary, uplifting book is the limiting nature of certain cultural beliefs. You are more likely to dream of your departed ancestors or witness shape-shifting in certain parts of Africa where there is experience and cultural acceptance of these phenomena. Africa therefore is fertile soil when it comes to accessing a broader, deeper template of human experience. But unfortunately with conquest come the importation of new practices and the imposition of mindsets, which split humans off from their own experience and wisdom traditions. Circumcision, with its ambiguous associations to sacrifice, is one such. I sense the author may be singling this out as an example of an ancient rite which literally cuts us off from our inner divinity and therefore from our ability to grow to our true potential; the fact that Onyesonwu had lost her clitoris meant that her chances of becoming a shape-shifter had been compromised. But it is more than that. Pervading Who Fears Death is the sense of old thinking creating entropy, enmity, warfare and chaos. Are we to understand that human beings' pattern of cutting the body in deference to a projected external authority is the root cause of our degeneration? A denying of our integrity, a suppression (especially in the feminine) of sublime feeling, a collusion in the fantasy that there is something intrinsically base about sexuality that requires cutting?

This is a powerful, book which evokes The Hero's Journey and explores the impenetrable matrix of destiny and the individuation of personal power. The chemistry between the protagonist lovers, the complex, hot-headed Onyesonwu and the brooding Mwita, is palpable and beautifully captured. And the sexuality is somehow on another level, where it belongs.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Sorcerer in an African Desert, 23 Mar 2014
By 
Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States) - See all my reviews
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Nnedi Okorafor's novel "Who Fears Death" (2010) is a mixture of fantasy, parable, and realism set in the Sudanese desert at some indeterminate time in the future. The author is an American born to immigrant Nigerian parents. She is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. Although she has written earlier books for young adults, "Who Fears Death" is Okorafor's first novel.

The book is challenging, imaginative, and disturbing. I found it difficult to get a handle on where and when the story was taking place and on its character. This ambiguity may be a strength of the novel as the reader becomes drawn into the story before skepticism can take hold. Many of the characters of this book are sorcerers. They have power to change themselves into animals, cast spells, kill people and animals or restore them to life, foresee the future, among other things. In my reading, I began with the assumption that the sorcerors claimed such powers but of course did not possess them. I also thought these alleged powers would be set in the past or in a tribal community. Okorafor, however, writes her tale without expressing any doubt about the reality of these mystical powers. And the setting of the book, in which computers, laptops, and similar modern devices are shown as relics of a long past time give the book a futurist character.

The novel seems to me a parable of African history but it is much more. The author has invented the strange world of her tale and its characteristics. The main character, and narrator, is a 20 year old woman, Onyesonwu (Onye), whose name translates into the title of the book. The story centers around the antagonism of two African tribes called the Okeke and the Naru. They share a common scripture called the Great Book and worship a goddess called Ani. The Great Book taught that the Okeke were destined for all time to be the slaves of the Naru. As the novel opens the Okeke have been rebelling against their fate and the Naru have been committing barbarous acts of genocide against them. These acts include brutal rapes. Onye is the product of the extended rape of an Okeke woman by a Naru man whose identity is initially undisclosed but who comes to play an important further villainous role in the story. Children born of a union between the Naru and the Okeke, whether or not the union was consensual, are ostracized by both sides and called Ewu.

It is almost immediately apparent that Onye has rare magical powers. During the first six years of Onye's life, described in the book's opening section, she wanders the desert alone with her mother as an outcast. Then, mother and daughter move to a small town where they live precariously as Onye's mother marries a successful local blacksmith. At age 11, Onye undergoes a harrowing rite of female circumcision. She wants to receive training in the mysteries of sorcery but the local sorcerer rebuffs her several times, in part because of Onye's gender, before reluctantly agreeing to teach her. Onye passes an extraordinary initiation ritual in which she forsees and goes through in advance her own death. She is in love with a young man, Mwita, who also aspired to become a sorceror but failed the initiation rite. Mwitwa has extraordinary gifts as a healer even though he has failed as a sorceror. Mwita is also an Ewu, the offspring of a consensual, loving marriage between an Okeke and a Naru. He loves Onye although he envies her success. His envy is attributed in part to gender bias. Thus, the second part of the novel describes Onye's life in the little town, her developing relationship with Mwita, and her training as a sorcerer.

In the third and longest part of the novel, the book takes another strange turn as Onye, Mwita, and four other persons described earlier in the book leave the town to try to stop the impending destruction of the Okeke people and to allow Onye to fulfill her destiny by rewriting the Great Book to end the cruelties it allows. The theme of meeting, accepting, and fulfilling one's destiny gives the book a Nietzschean cast. Onye, despite her magical powers, is a religious skeptic who does not believe in the goddess Ani or in any other divinity. The book becomes something of a wandering, picaresque novel,as Onye and her entourage travel through the desert for over five months. They endure great hardship, fight among themselves, and meet many people and their villages and have odd adventures along the way. Despite her powers, Onye can be impulsive, quarrelsome, and unpleasant. Her character deepens during the desert journey, as do her powers as a sorcerer and her love for Mwita. Ultimately, she must confront her destiny of rewriting the Great Book and coming to terms with her evil but powerful biological father.

The book is written in mostly short chapters and for all its obscurity and magic is on the whole easy to follow. The scenes of desert wandering are impressive. The elements of fantasy and of sorcery will not be to every reader's liking or sympathy. There are many gruesome, violent scenes in the book. The peculiar exoticism of the book, the invented world, the futurism, the imaginative writing, and the ersatz Nietzschean tone ultimately made it succeed, albeit precariously, for me. But the novel is overly ambitious and broad in its scope as Okorafor apparently feels she must identify, address and resolve virtually every issue which she believes plagues the world. The book tries too many things. It is a coming-of-age story for Onye, a picaresque novel,a story of Africa, and a parable against religious bigotry, racism, tribalism, gender discrimination, female mutilation, war, child soldiering, and more. It tends to collapse under its own weight. In writing novels, much is to be gained by restricting one's scope. Less can often be more.

Robin Friedman
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique Tale, 19 Sep 2012
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This review is from: Who Fears Death? (Paperback)
Set in a post apocalyptic Africa, "Who Fears Death" is a science fantasy tale of magic and myth. Onyesonwu, the hero of our story, is a person born out of the violent conflict between two groups of people, the Okeke and the Nuru. Yet she has a specific and unique role to play in the unfolding events in that conflict.
The characters we meet along in this tale (good and bad) are well developed and very interesting. I also felt that subjects which were raised in the book, such as violence, slavery, female circumcision, rape and racism were well dealt with by the author. And despite the things that happen in the lives of the people in the book there is always a feeling of hope!

"Who Fears Death" is a well written and unique story which blends elements of traditional Africa into a speculative tale of the future. I would certainly recommend it.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Original, effective, but also grim and dispiriting, 17 Sep 2012
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This review is from: Who Fears Death (Kindle Edition)
"Who Fears Death" is a novel set in Africa. In fact, it is a fantasy / science fiction novel set in a postapocalyptic Africa, but to be honest, this only became clear to me very late in the novel.

Our heroine, Onyesonwu, is an "Ewu", a mixed race girl, born as a result of a rape. Permanently an outsider, she is passionate, stubborn, quick to anger, and, it turns out, adept at using magic / juju. She is determined to learn magic and change the world.

The world, meanwhile, is a desert, populated by two tribes / races: Nurus and Okekes. Nurus rule, Okekes are slaves. There's been an uprising by Okekes before Onye was born. Now there is a slow-moving genocide (Nurus killing Okekes), ongoing since before Onye's birth, and continuing, brutally.

There is a lot of stuff in this novel that makes the reader think, and which offers itself for debate and discussion. Much of its core is about the relationship between a group of young people. The novel clearly has a lot to say about women and sex and gender politics. The shifting relationships between our questing youths (four girls, two guys), and the importance of sex, are as much part of the novel as magic and genocide.

Who Fears Death is not a young adult novel (based on the cartoonish cover, and having read only one novel by this author previously, which was a young adult novel, I had the wrong expectations). It is a novel that feels authentically African (which is an achievement, as the author was born and lives in America). The way the story handles tribes, beliefs in juju / magic, and the strange way in which life can go on while civil war and genocide are also occurring, in close proximity - it all feels genuine, incredibly, depressing and eery. We witness female genital mutilation, angry, hateful mobs, weaponised rape, tribalism, execution by stoning to death, incest - at times, this novel feels like a highlights reel of the worst and ugliest sides of Africa (and families in general).

I realise that it is meant to be a novel of hope, of sorts, with a hero who does not readily accept being an outcast for her race, or being seen as a lesser person because of her sex, and who goes on to try to change things. But to me, it was a very hard novel to read. The realistic elements are brutal. The fact that the novel uses magic and prophecy as an agent of change leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It makes me feel that there is no real hope for Africa at all, and dreaming of a magic solution is the only dream that Africa has left. Along the way, we even briefly encounter an almost utopian society in a dream-like sequence, which is founded entirely upon magic. All the reality in this book is grim, all the hope is carried in its magic.

Who Fears Death is an original novel - who else writes science fiction about Africa? It is also an effective novel, putting some of the brutality that I try not to think about into my life by embedding it in a book I chose for leisure reading. But it is not a book that makes me hopeful, or that gives me any happiness. It made me realise how my image of Africa is already postapocalyptic / dystopian - if it takes me until 80% of a book have passed before I understand that this is meant to be a post-climate-change, post-technological-collapse future, then that tells me something. It tells me I am ignorant, but it also tells me that Africa must be a grim and terrible place, to be so indistinguishable from postapocalyptic dystopias to the ignorant. Most of all, the book tells me that there is no hope for some parts of Africa ever to develop, to become something less brutal, less oppressive, more humane: even in science fiction, it takes god-like magic, and god-like prophets and messiahs for anything to change. To me, Who Fears Death is terrifying and grim.
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Who Fears Death? by Nnedi Okorafor (Paperback - 7 Jun 2011)
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