In her debut novel for adults, Nnedi Okorafor, the author of two well-received books for young adults, has drawn from both the rich spirituality of Africa and the recent, tragic history of places like Darfur, Rwanda and Congo to craft a modern fantasy that sometimes feels like the time-slipped record of a future myth. This harsh and often wonderful book tells the story of Onyesonwu, a child of rape in a corner of a future Africa where the remnants of advanced technology mingle with magic.
Onyesonwu is raised among her mother's people, the Okeke, who are suffering under an explosion of genocidal violence at the hands of the Nuru people who have kept the Okeke enslaved for centuries. Discovering that she is connected to the world of magic, she grows from child to woman, becoming an unlikely beacon of hope for her genocide-ravaged people, without ever quite managing to shake the outcast stain that comes from her violent origins. As Onyesonwu's abilities grow, along with the threat to her people, she gathers an unlikely group of companions on a quest to confront the darkness that threatens to wipe the Okeke from the pages of history. Filled with rage, there are times when Onyesonwu is more like a force of nature than a human being as she races towards her ultimate destiny.
Although beautifully written throughout, there are portions of this book that are incredibly hard to read, as Okorafor's unflinching prose scours the reader with the intimate details of the worst that humanity has to offer. Yet she also shows us moments of beauty and joy. The desolate grandeur of the desert is convincingly drawn, as are some fantastic magical set pieces.
Who Fears Death is an example of the increasingly global influences that inform modern science fiction and fantasy; these influences are refreshing the genres and giving them new strength and relevance. This is not half-hearted magical realism, but epic fantasy. By combining African myth with African reality, Nnedi Okorafor has created a unique and powerful tale.