Task: Read a fantasy novel.
Alternative: Read a book set more than 5,000 miles from your location.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is being developed by HBO and executive produced by George R.R. Martin. This isn’t the only reason you should read it, by any means, but it’ll put you in a good cultural position when the show comes out. Trust me, it’s satisfying to be the one who knows the Red Wedding is coming the entire time and then gets to kick back and laugh at how upset everyone else is.
But again, there are many other far worthier reasons for you to read this. At its heart, it is admittedly the most basic of fantasy plots – the chosen one must undergo rigorous training from a supernatural mentor before embarking on a quest to fulfill her destiny and save the world. But you know, it’s not an intrinsically bad plot. Seeing it driven by a protagonist of color in a world drawn from a history and mythology that’s not that of the United States and/or western Europe felt like a necessary counterbalance to the many, many, many other iterations of that story I’ve encountered. It was also propulsive reading.
Onyesonwu’s name means “Who fears death?” (which is one of the most badass things I’ve ever heard, incidentally). Onyesonwu (Onye to her friends) has the distinct appearance of an Ewu – an individual born of rape between a light-skinned Nuru man and a dark skinned Okeke woman, popularly assumed to carry violence in her blood. She lives in a “post-apocalyptic Africa,” which I actually wouldn’t have known until well into the book when the main characters discover a cave full of old computers (among other, more horrible things) if I hadn’t read it on the book’s jacket.
I also wouldn’t have had any idea where in Africa if Sudan wasn’t mentioned by name a few pages from the end. I usually skip over fantasy maps, but this is a rare example where I wouldn’t have minded having one. There is an enormous journey undertaken over the course of the novel, and I’m pretty sure that it begins in Nigeria on the edge of the Sahara desert and ends on Sudan’s coast. I could have that wrong, though.
IThe two dominant cultures in the book – dark-skinned Okeke and light-skinned Nuru – adhere to a mythology in which the Okeke ruined the earth and then the Nuru arrived from the stars to fix things, which suggests a couple of things to me. The world of the novel is dealing with the fallout from climate change, and the Nuru are aliens. None of this is explicit, and I have no idea if it’s at all reasonable to wonder if the Nuru are aliens or not.
It sounds like I’m describing a sci-fi book, but Who Fears Death? is definitely a fantasy novel (albeit one with some fairly subtle sci-fi elements). Magic exists in this world, and not as a form of alien technology. Onyesonwu manages to work her way into an apprenticeship with a sorcerer after she accidentally shape shifts into a bird. She possesses powers of regeneration as well. Spirits are very real and visit the living (my favorite scene involved a masquerade spirit with a pretty nasty sense of humor). Onye is able to travel in an extradimensional otherworld. Etc.
But there are also elements of the book that are completely, depressingly drawn from the real world. The Nuru employ weaponized rape and institutionalized slavery against the Okeke. The book begins with a scene from Onye’s mother’s perspective, and it is a rough read. Okorafor is unflinching in her narration, and the trauma of the assault echoes throughout the rest of the book (rather literally, as Onye’s powers allow her to cause others to experience her mother’s pain and fear).
There’s another really tough, unblinking scene of female genital cutting (Okorafor’s preferred term). This is a difficult subject for me, because on the one hand I cannot get around my gut reaction that this is a terrible, disfiguring thing to do to a woman, and on the other hand, I am aware of extremely problematic patronizing western attitudes toward a monolithic mythical “Africa.”
Okorafor’s work also has a complicated take on the practice, but hers, unlike mine, isn’t an ignorant one. In Who Fears Death, Onye voluntarily undergoes the Rite of Eleven (as it’s called) against her own mother’s wishes. She does it to try to help her mother’s social standing and to be normal, to fit in. Anyone who’s ever been a neonate can surely relate to that. Her attitude toward it is fearful, but it’s also sort of exciting – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood. The rite itself binds her and the other three girls who go through it together as friends, and these three will accompany her on her epic quest. It’s not performed by horrible predatory men, but by older, respected women (one of them is an architect). It’s a difficult scene, but it’s also a very complex engagement with a subject that tends to knock otherwise thoughtful people into very stark absolutisms.
However, Okorafor doesn’t leave it at that. The rite results in a loss of her own magical abilities. Fortunately, she can regenerate herself, and so a very permanent decision becomes less permanent. Sex and sexual energy are magic in and of themselves in the book. In the book, the act of female genital cutting diminishes Onye’s magic, which to me seems symbolic of diminishing a woman’s agency and pleasure. Similarly, her ability to regrow herself seems to point toward the need for and possibility of social change. Okorafor’s blog post responding to criticism she received for the scene is worth a read (on my computer it showed up as white text on a white background and I had to highlight it to read it – still worth it).
That happens very early on, and while it is a significant plot point, the book isn’t “about” female genital cutting. It’s about a badass young sorceress learning to control her powers, flying in the face of gender norms, confronting her fears, and launching herself, her lover, and her best friends on an epic journey across a desert populated by monsters, myths, and other wonders. I highly recommend it.