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Who Fears Death Mass Market Paperback – February 4, 2014
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An award-winning literary author enters the world of magical realism with her World Fantasy Award-winning novel of a remarkable woman in post-apocalyptic Africa.
In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means "Who fears death?" in an ancient language.
It doesn't take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.
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"Haunting and absolutely brilliant. My heart and guts are all turned inside out." —John Green, New York Times-bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars
"Who Fears Death is one of the most striking, chilling, truly fascinating, and all-around remarkable novels I've read in a very long time.” —Peter S. Beagle, bestselling author of The Last Unicorn
"Nnedi Okorafor is American-born but her Nigerian blood runs strong, lacing her work with fantasy, magic and true African reality. Many people need to read Who Fears Death, it's an important book." —Nawal El Saadawi, bestselling author of Woman at Point Zero
"To compare author Nnedi Okorafor to the late Octavia E. Butler would be easy to do, but this simple comparison should not detract from Okorafor’s unique storytelling gift." —New York Journal of Books
"Both wondrously magical and terribly realistic." —The Washington Post
"Believable, nuanced characters of color and an unbiased view of an Africa full of technology, mysticism, culture clashes and true love." —Ebony Magazine (editor's pick)
"A fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Beautifully written, this is dystopian fantasy at its very best. Expertly exploring issues of race, gender, and cultural identity, Okorafor blends future fantasy with the rhythm and feel of African storytelling. " —Library Journal (starred review)
"Her pacing is tight. Her expository sections sing like poetry. Descriptions of paranormal people and battles are disturbingly vivid and palpable. But most crucial to the book's success is how the author slowly transforms Onye's pursuit of her rapist father from a personal vendetta to a struggle to transform the social systems that created him." —The Village Voice
"Okorafor is a master storyteller who combines recent history, fantasy, tradition, advanced technology, and culture into something wonderful and new that should not be missed." —RT Book Review (top pick)
About the Author
- ASIN : 0756407281
- Publisher : DAW; Reprint edition (February 4, 2014)
- Language : English
- Mass Market Paperback : 432 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780756407285
- ISBN-13 : 978-0756407285
- Item Weight : 7.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.19 x 1.1 x 6.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #60,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Top reviews from the United States
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Onyesonwu is a formidable human being. She is strong and angry. She has power. She is not particularly feminine, and yet also incredibly woman. She is both good and bad, but mostly good. It is hard to wrap your head around her character, but she also finds it hard to wrap her head around her own self, so this isn't surprising. The result is that even though she is magical and powerful, she is also extremely human, and very beautiful.
The other characters in the story begin as very two-dimensional, but as it progressed, I found myself surprised by how much I either loved or hated them. This helped reinforce the theme that all people are human, that no one deserves to be treated a specific way based on superficial impressions, and that the world can always use more compassion.
If you take only one of my recommendations ever, let it be this one. Read this book.
Who Fears Death. A great title, and the name of our protagonist as well; Onyesonwu. Nnedi Okorafor's powerful story takes place in a future Africa. How far into the future is not made clear, but the setting is very interesting. Computers and GPS systems still linger, and though they are used, no one seems to know exactly how they work. The exact setting is revealed near the end, but I won't mention it here. It feels like something to discover on your own.
Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child of violence; born of rape. She is a result of the genocide by the Nuru people against the Okeke. Blinded by the writings of the Great Book, the Nuru people seek to exterminate the Okeke, and harm them by any means necessary. Even the horrors of weaponized rape. A term that I'd not heard before this book, and one that forces you to think on the evils in this world. To change her world, and wipe away these evils, Onyesonwu must rewrite the Book, and confront her murderous father to do so. The story is often hard to read, but always compelling; and the characters that fill it (Mwita, Luyu, Najeeba, and all the rest) bring it to life.
Okorafor hits an intriguing mix between the fantastic and the real; I've heard it called 'magical realism'? I suppose that's as good a descriptor as any. I was impressed, and didn't put it down often. I'll be reading more of her work.
Liked: The African setting was unique and the world extremely fleshed out, with lots of interesting lore. The writing was good, though sometimes a little too lyrical and confusing.
Disliked: The book started off strong but then seriously dragged in the middle before rushing to a confusing conclusion.
The main character, Onyesonwu (Onye), doesn't have a lot of agency. Stuff just kind of happens to her throughout the book with no clear cause and effect. Spirits show up out of nowhere and give her ambiguous magical powers, then wander off never to be seen again. She has strange, random encounters that are never explained.
Overall the plot is weak. After a strong beginning that explains Onye's backstory and sets up what seems like an epic showdown between Onye and her evil father, she and a gang of mostly useless friends wander around the desert without a clear purpose for a significant portion of the book. They're heading West to make a prophesy come true that will free the slaves (the Okeke in this world, aka Black people) from their oppressors (the Nuru, aka White(ish) people). However, it's unclear how they're going to do that, so they just kind of amble in that direction while random stuff happens to them. Large portions of the book are dedicated to her useless friends fighting with each other, which ultimately has no effect on the plot or anything else that happens. It's just there to pad the book out I guess, because otherwise it would only be ~150 pages at most.
But despite the serious pacing issues and confusing ending, I would have rated this book at least three stars, maybe four for originality, if not for the "chosen one fixes racism" theme. I know the author wrote this book in 2011, but it's still hard to buy into the narrative that all it takes to fix serious systemic problems like racism/slavery is for one special person to kill one evil person.
Even as a fantasy I'm not buying it, and the whole concept of such a simple solution to a VERY complex problem is insulting in 2021. Clearly the author wanted this book to be topical and meaningful to the real world, but ironically by sticking to the oldest fantasy cliché there is - good person defeats evil person with magic, saves the world - she missed the mark big-time.
The book's message hasn't aged well is what I'm saying. I'm curious how HBO is going to handle this critical weakness of the story, if they still move forward with a TV series adaption. They'll have to do some significant rewriting of the story for that reason...and also how boring it is in the middle, and how the ending makes no sense.
Top reviews from other countries
The book describes the life of, Onyesonwu, who was conceived when a Nuru general raped her Okeke mother. As girl and as a child of rape the cards of this society are heavily stacked against her. But she grows up in a backwater town away from the genocide and always has some people around her who love and support her. She's got a strong, free-minded and occasionally impulsive spirit, is clever and has strong magical talents. And she's destined to change the world big time. When she's somewhere between 17 to 19 (it's mentioned but I forgot), about half way through the book, she's sent on the quest of her life: To stop her father from escalating the genocide even further and to change the world. And because questing on your own is a sad affair, her boyfriend and friends volunteer to join her. So far the classical fantasy / sci-fi book.
But if you look closer, this is not about magic (fantasy) or awesome technologies (sci-fi) - it is about the world as it is. The civil war described here could be any African civil war today. The society closely resembles what I've read about contemporary African societies torn between a traditional, low tech world of myths, mystics and superstition on the one side and modern life on the other. In the way it is structured it tries to show (remind) the readers (of) the horrors of our world and educate us about the possibility of a better, more humane world. In that it does remind me a lot of Charles Dickens.
Nnedi Okorafor achieves a great balance between real world horrors and love, between fantasy / sci-fi storytelling and educational mission. The book is well written and once I started reading it I couldn't put it down until I had finished it.
(Read as part of the #ReadWomenSF book group on Twitter.)