When my comrade-in-arms Jha Goh attended Wiscon this year, she asked me if I wanted anything. I only asked for two books, one of them being Nnedi Okorafor’s WHO FEARS DEATH. This isn’t a steampunk book, but I had read a bit about the setting: one with magic in a world where technology had crumbled and a vicious empire seeks to wipe out other tribes through genocide. Rebuilt societies + imperialist themes + magic = a book worth checking out. A couple of weeks later, I eagerly opened the package in the mail and read the following inscription: “I hope this novel takes you there and back again.”
“There” is post-apocalyptic Africa, in a land known as the Seven Rivers Kingdom, a land plagued by war and genocide. My guide is the strong and determined Onyesonwu, a young woman whose name translates to the title of this book. Her story, told in simple but engaging language, is her journey. Though she is hated because she is an Ewu–born from the rape of her Okeke mother by someone from the conquering Nuru tribe– Onyesonwu’s life changes drastically when she develops the ability to change into animals and even raise the dead. Now, Onyesonwu must grapple against prejudice aimed at her because of her birth and her gender in order to master her magical abilities. But time is running short, because the Nuru armies are approaching her homeland–and a powerful magician is out to kill her.
Alongside magic powers and spirits, WHO FEARS DEATH deals with very tough, very real issues: weaponized rape, child soldiers, female genital mutilation. These topics are not sensationalized, but integrated into the harsh reality of the world of the Seven Rivers Kingdom. Nnedi also doesn’t shy away from portraying the messed-up perceptions characters have concerning these subjects too, like the poor treatment of Okeke rape survivors, who are shunned because they are “ruined.” Nnedi handles each subject upfront; the more violent scenes were not gratuitous and didn’t make me feel uncomfortable reading it, though I’ll give this book a trigger warning.
Yet Onyesonwu’s tale is much more than the harshness of her world. It’s also very much a story about women finding strength in themselves and in their friendships. It’s about sex used in all its forms: as part of violent oppression, intrinsic desire, and personal liberation. It’s about the mysterious spirit world where demons called masquerades walk the land and dragons fly in the air and tribes can manipulate sand storms (reminding me of the sand benders from Avatar: The Last Airbender). It’s also very much a coming-of-age story as Onyesonwu seeks to affirm her personal and magical identity. And the core strength of the book lies in its ability to take readers to places that are at turns dark, mythical, brutal and wondrous.
After finishing this book, I talked with Nnedi about her career and the challenges she’s faced when writing WHO FEARS DEATH.