Reading Recommendation: Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death

A few days ago, I read the latest news from American cable TV company HBO that they’ve green lit and are currently in the early developmental stages of bringing a new sweeping fantasy show to the small screen – an adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. Being that I’m a fan of both HBO productions and strong female authors, I decided to give the novel a read and review.

I’ve only had one previous experience of Okorafor’s writing. A few years ago now, I read her now seminal work, Zahrah and the Windseeker, a beautifully written and perfectly targeted children’s fantasy and had quite naively assumed Okorafor was a children’s author. Hence, when I read that one of her other works had been picked up by commission by the famously sex and violence friendly HBO, I felt compelled to do further research and reading.

Quickly, I discovered that Who Fears Death is very much an adult tale, and firmly within the genre of science fantasy, which was something of a happy surprise; I love when those two genres meld together with realism within prose to create both harmony and discord, and Who Fears Death had it all in abundance. The novel takes place in a world that has become little more than desert wasteland in an unknown future of anonymous separation from 2017. It is a reality where people must reply on water-condensers and shoddy, home made computers to survive. It is also a reality beset by conflict, racial supremacy and genocide, where the Nuru, devout disciples of the Great Book perceive themselves to be racially purer and superior to the Okeke – a peoples who have been enslaved by them for an unknown aeon of time – and have finally taken it upon themselves to eradicate them. Ingrained in this genocidal movement is the systematic rape of Okeke women in the hopes of getting them pregnant with mixed race babies.

It’s perhaps clear to see Okorafor’s real-world inspirations. Outside the obvious nods to Eastern African culture and history and the Rwandan genocide of the 90s, I was reminded of the conflicts that racked the former Yugoslavia where genocide and, in particular, rape were used as further weapons of war and suppression. As if eager to explore the possible fallout from this in a more intimate way, Who Fears Death‘s protagonist, Onyesunwo, is a child of this mixed-race rape.

Because of her status as a living reminder of prejudice and pain and the horrors that loom everyday, Onyesunwo is treated badly by her mother’s Okeke tribe even though they now live far from the conflict’s core. Displaying both beauty and bravery in the face of hatred on all fronts, Onyesunwo still manages to make allies and lifelong friends as she embarks on a seriously fantastical journey that teaches her the history behind the war and that she is at the centre of a prophetic dream that may bring it to its end. As Onyesunwe sets out with these allies to face her own father – a highly powerful black sorcerer who’s trying to kill her to stop the prophecy coming true – the story unfolds into an incredibly magical and often mythically wondrous one: the magical house of the elders, he fascinating encounter with the nomadic Red People who travel shielded by their own magical stand storm, and the sisterhood of Onyesunwe and her kickass group of female heroes being my personal highlights.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of harrowing, grim parts to struggle through in this novel, when Okorafor takes us on a tour of Africa’s – and more generally, the world’s – darker sides and systematic ill treatment of women as she makes us privy to the horrors of sexual violence, torture, prejudice, bullying, female genital cutting, colourism, child soldiering, and more. Yet, despite this, the novel is beautifully handled and nuanced and never did I think any of the gruesome stuff was out of place or over the top. Each theme conveyed an important message: there’s far more to war than simply the ‘war’ part of it; there’s more to life than meets the eyes; there’s more to love than colour and beliefs.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. Who Fears Death was a simultaneously horrifying and inspiring book, and I can’t wait to watch where HBO takes it.

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