Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
DAW, 2010

Historians agree that jazz was born when African musical sensibilities met European instrumentation. For Western listeners, it offered familiar sounds voicing unfamiliar phrases. For African listeners, it gave them familiar rhythms and musical ideas echoing through strange sounds.

For anyone who cared to listen, jazz was a music that expanded perceptions and broadened minds. It was a music that blended different heritages into something new and vibrant.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is the kind of novel you get when non-Western storytelling traditions and sensibilities utilize the quintessentially Western cultural tools and structures of SF. Like jazz, the experience is revelatory.

Set in a far future region of Africa, the novel follows the life of a young woman, Onyesonwu, a social outcast, a shape-shifter and sorcerer, as she seeks to fulfill her destiny to change the world. It offers a deeply believable environment of harsh natural conditions, entrenched social and gender inequality, and a mix of magic, superstitions, and cultural traditions which bring it all to vibrant life.

The story is as much a product of the mythology and fables of the Igbo people of Africa as it is a product of SF.

One of the things I worry about when I read stories that come from traditions that are foreign to me is that I’ll miss too many of the references, that too much of the symbolism and significance will go right over my head. Either I’ll glide over the surface of the tale with no awareness of its depths, or the story will be nonsensical and confusing to me.

Neither is the case with Who Fears Death. It’s compellingly accessible, even as it surprises me with an unfamiliar mythos.

One of the great joys of reading stories that are profoundly informed by non-Western storytelling traditions is how the fundamental elements of plot pacing and character development are handled differently than what I’m used to. The pace proceeds according to a different sense of time, the characters speak and act according to a different set of dramatic requirements.

Normally, I would assess these things but I possess little familiarity with the standards and history of Igbo storytelling traditions. Therefore, I feel I lack the authority or expertise to evaluate this novel fairly on those counts.

What I can say is this:

I found Who Fears Death a powerful experience.

It compelled me—when I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to get back to it. I cared deeply about all of the characters. I treasured the time it gave me to immerse myself in the mythology and culture of this world.

I haven’t yet fully come to terms with the ending and I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it. But I think that’s the point—I like that it leaves me pondering, wrestling with its significance.

In all sorts of ways—big and little—Who Fears Death doesn’t work quite the way I expect an SF novel to work. But it works. According to its own rules, according the rhythms and drama of its own tradition—it’s a powerful piece of storytelling.

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