In doing research on Black/African-American Science Fiction authors, one name kept popping up – Nnedi Okorafor. I was excited to read Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death because I had heard many positive comments of the novel. I was not disappointed. Okorafor’s novel takes place in a Africa of a distant future. Her world is magical filled with sorcerers and spirits, but yet it is a mix of both modern and traditional worlds. The story follows a young woman, Onyesonwu, which literally means “who fears death”, as she develops her magical abilities and learns her purpose in Okorafor’s world. Onyesonwu, or Onye, was the product of a rape by a powerful sorcerer, therefore she displays tremendous magical powers that eventually lead her to learn that she was prophesied to bring peace to the two warring peoples. To do so, she must face her death hence her name. This tightly wrapped story is what makes Who Fears Death a compelling read.
One of Okorafor’s strengths with the novel is the completely real and intricate world she creates. The world of Who Fears Death appears to be a post-apocalyptic world where two nations of Africa exists. The people have returned to a simpler way of life yet still use some modern technology. This detail grounds the story into the reader’s reality and allows them to recognize a future of their making. The spiritual world that accompanies Okorafor’s “real world” is as rich and complex as Onye’s physical world. One lovely thread woven throughout the novel is the influence The “Great Book” had on the characters. None of the Great Book is revealed to the reader, but the character’s beliefs are are so strong that one has to believe Okorafor wrote the Great Book before writing this novel, as it contains all the rules for Onye’s world.
Another of Okorafor’s strengths is her characters. The novel is a first person narrative told in Onye’s voice. She is a complex character who constantly observes and reflects on her world, yet she has her faults, such as a quick temper. Her companion, Mwita, is a realistic portrayal of a spouse. He challenges her, yet is loving at the same time. Their love story doesn’t dominate the novel which I found refreshing. It was in the background, just another part of her life, as it is within a marriage. The are numerous characters that fill Onye’s world, each distinct with their own foibles themselves. Onye’s interactions with all the different characters is the heart of the novel.
Complimenting her detailed world and developed characters is Okorafor’s lush writing. The novel takes place primarily in the desert (I’d assume the Sahara) and Okorafor’s descriptions make the desert a beautiful, inviting place. The imagery she creates of the spiritual world is filled with fantastical and dreamy landscapes and objects that take the reader, along with Onye, to a magical place. Take for example this description of the jungle that Onye “flies” to while she is in the spirit world: “Another tree blooming with large bright pink flowers was crowded with large blue and yellow butterflies. In other treetops sat furry beasts with long arms and curious eyes. They watched us fly by. A breeze sent ripples in the treetops like wind on a puddle of water.” (Okorafor 286). With descriptions such as these, it is easy to get lost in this beautiful world Okorafor creates.