Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published by: DAW
My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
“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.” (Source)
Who Fears Death was unfortunately one of the biggest disappointments of my 2017 reading year so far. I wanted to love this book so much. I’ve heard such good things about it, Nnedi Okorafor has been on my list for a long time as an author to watch and I enjoyed her novella Binti. Everything should have lead me to love this novel but instead I could barely get through it and had to push myself to finish it. I would have put it down if I hadn’t been reading it for r/fantasy bingo 2016 and was nearing the end of the challenge.
Let’s address what I did enjoy first. The world building was really interesting and I’m always on the look-out for sci-fi and speculative fiction that addresses the future outside North American contexts. Okorafor really did a good job building the world and its cultures, while also scattering foreshadowing of how the world ended up in a post-nuclear-holocaust. It also deals with a number of difficult and serious topics such as female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war, and genocide.
Unfortunately that’s all the book had going for me and that wasn’t enough to keep me interested. I found the characterization of Onyesonwu and her friends pretty shallow and it impeded me from actually becoming immersed in the story and attached to them. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a huge fan of characterization. I don’t care how cool your world or magic system is. If your characters are cardboard thin enough that they could blow away in a slight breeze or don’t actually change throughout the course of the story in relation to the events they go through, then that’s not a good book according to what I enjoy.
I kept waiting for things to kick in, for characters to deepen, relationships to expand but suddenly I was a quarter of the way through the book and none of that had really happened. Onye’s relationship with her lover Mwita never felt that real to me, more like we knew they were in love because we were told about it and it was demonstrated by their passions and anger constantly running hot and cold. Likewise Onye’s four best friends have little personality and I found it incredibly hard to tell them apart. Okorafor kept telling the reader about these relationships but then keep failing to demonstrate them through her characters’ actions and feelings. But by the time I reached three quarters of the way through the book, I still couldn’t tell any of Onye’s companions apart and still had difficulty situating myself in the world.
Overall, Who Fears Death was a really disappointing read for me and I wanted to love it so much. I recognize that this is a really important book that a lot of people have loved and that it covers a number of important topics. But for me, the lack of characterization and Okorafor’s telling, not showing approach to characters, relationships and world building really didn’t do anything for me and lead to a disappointing read.