It’s a bit of everything this book: part dystopian sci-fi, part urban fantasy, and part social commentary. You’d think that trying to blend all this together into a single novel would turn into a hot mess.
Well, no it doesn’t.
Set in a future Africa after a global disaster, Who Fears Death is the story – the long and harrowing story – of Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu, a child born of rape who undertakes a journey to become a sorcerer so that she can avenge the rape of her mother.
That alone is a lot to unwrap, but as I mentioned, this book is very much a social commentary wrapped in a fantasy novel, so along the way we also take a good, long, graphic look at incest, child abuse, female circumcision, weaponised rape, war, mutilation and my personal bugbear this year: the caste system. This is some bold writing: Okorafor doesn’t spare anyone’s fragility and that’s a good thing because it makes the book realistic, gritty, compelling and thought-provoking, stark and unsanitized. Some of it makes for uncomfortable reading, but don’t skip it.
The fantasy side of things is really well done, with some very original ideas that are blended convincingly with African folklore. The characterisations are superb, which is tricky to do when you have this many characters in the book.
The story didn’t go into any real detail about how this world had come about. The ‘disaster’ was eluded to, but wasn’t really explained. In the end, knowing the details probably wouldn’t have added anything to the story, but it did leave me a bit curious. There’s probably a prequel lurking about somewhere.
But on the whole, the story itself worked for me. I did find the ending something of an anticlimax. I expected more since the final battle had been built up since the beginning of the book. This was a little disappointing because the journey to get to that point was a masterpiece of poetic writing (some of the best I’ve seen actually).
Still, a thought-provoking page-turner that’s well worth reading.