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.
Y’know what … on paper, this shouldn’t really work. I mean, it’s about chess. Now, that’s not to say that’s chess isn’t an exciting game; I watched a few matches on Channel4 a few years back, and I have to tell you it’s the most exciting and passionate commentary I’ve seen for any sport. But still … it is chess, and I while I could imagine a ninety-minute movie working, I wasn’t sure about a seven-episode mini-series.
Well, shows what I know. If anything, it was too short.
With the help of the odd flashback, we follow the colourful life of prodigy Beth Harmon – from her early years being taught chess by the surly janitor in the basement of the orphanage where she grew up, proving her genius in the male-dominated arena of competition chess, and international stardom as a master of the beautiful game (no hang on, that’s football, isn’t it).
Of course, genius has its price, and emotionally-repressed Beth, played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy, is unable to deal with the loss of two mothers, her growing fame, and the demands of being at the top of the intensely competitive sport.
And of course, the drink and drug addiction doesn’t help … or maybe it does … not sure …
Ah, the seventies: flared trousers, flammable nylon, in-your-face racism and school custard with the consistency of skimmed milk. But you know what; it wasn’t all bad, because on Saturday nights (having spend the day bouncing off the walls after Tiswas) we had the Six Million Dollar Man: the story of Steve Austin, astronaut and test pilot, horrifically injured in a plane crash and rebuilt as a cyborg to be better than he was before; better, faster, stron—anyway, even if you don’t remember it I’m sure you get the idea. As entertaining as it was ridiculous, the Six Million Dollar Man ran for five seasons and spawned a reasonably successful spinoff (The Bionic Woman) that ran for another three. It was also the forerunner for just about every cyborg-related super-hero/villain you’ll see today; some we love (Inspector Gadget), and some we hate (The Terminator). Over the years, there’s been talk of a movie revival (I think Will Smith was mooted to play Austin one point), but nothing every came of it.
Well, actually it did: not a movie, but a comic series – and I had no idea. It’s been out for a couple of years, and I only found out when I stumbled across a picture from one of the comics on the interweb:
And on the strength of that, I bought the first omnibus, and I can tell you, it’s been an absolute treat. Kevin Smith (is that the same guy with the baseball cap?) deserves a comic oscar or something for this.