If there are flaws in Who Fears Death, they are the exhilarating misses of a writer shooting for the moon and almost scoring a bullseye. One should be very forgiving of a novel whose writer is bursting with an abundance of creative passion, channeling all of that passion into the pursuit of a vision, even if the route taken is occasionally meandering. I've never read anything quite like the haunting and dreamlike Who Fears Death. I mean, on the one hand, I have. This is in so many ways a traditional quest fantasy, with a messianic Campbellian hero in pursuit of her destiny, which will require emancipating her people from the personification of evil and grabbing a little personal vengeance into the bargain. Given the windswept African desert setting, you could call this a distaff Dune or even Star Wars.
But Nnedi Okorafor rises above her archetypes through the exceptional development of her heroine, Onyesonwu, and the vivid sense of realism she brings to a world that — I believe intentionally — remains hazily defined. I read Paul di Filippo's critique of the novel (something I almost never do before writing my own reviews), and noted how he took Okorafor to task for giving the story's SF elements short shrift compared to its fantasy and mythical elements. In other words, the story's bleak near-future isn't sufficiently explained. Yet I thought this made sense in context. The past — our modern world, essentially — is shrouded in mystery to the story's own characters, and all they know about their heritage comes from a tome of lore (itself of unexplained origin) they call the Great Book. If the people through whose eyes we receive the tale don't know much about the world before, or the crisis that transformed it, why should we expect any better an understanding? Hard SF is about explaining things, myths are about suggesting those explanations.
Okorafor's other gift is in conveying moments of great emotional force with a sense of detachment that only accentutates their horrors. There are scenes here which, by their very appearance, expose grisly social and political realities most of us living in the privileged West get to ignore by choice. One of these realities is that of weaponized rape, a war crime employed to a level of inconceivable terror right this very minute in Africa and other parts of the world not shown on cable news. But Who Fears Death is not a political novel. Okorafor never turns her story into a polemic. She just allows it to unfold. She doesn't lecture, but she doesn't let us look away either. How evil can people become? Take a look.
Onyesonwu ("Who Fears Death") is Ewu, a child of rape. Her mother is of the Okeke people, whose lot in life is one of complete subservience to the belligerent Nuru. This is dictated by the Great Book, which the Okeke seem resigned to follow. But Onyesonwu, whose life we witness from adolescence to the fulfillment of her destiny at age 20, is not one to resign herself to an ordained fate. From the moment she learns of the horror of her own conception, she resolves to avenge her mother against the Nuru warrior who violated her. This revelation coincides with her discovery of her innate powers as sorceress and shape-shifter. After rebuffing her many times (Ewu children are vilified by both Nuru and Okeke alike), her village's Master Aro agrees to instruct Onyesonwu in the Great Mystic Points. And none too soon. Rumors abound that the Nuru are planning their own Final Solution against the Okeke once and for all. And there is a reason, beyond pure cruelty, that Onyesonwu was conceived, and why her powers are so great.
Superficially, these are familiar tropes: a student, a mentor, a destiny, a looming battle upon which the fate of all hangs. The richness of the world Okorafor has realized here — so identifably our own, yet in so many ways as alien as the south pole of Pluto — and the people who inhabit it are what lifts Who Fears Death so far above the mundane. Onyesonwu will undertake her quest, with Mwita, another Ewu boy who becomes her life companion, and four other schoolmates without an inkling of what they're in for, only that there has to be a role for them to play. Their friendships and petty quarrels are universal to all young people still trying to figure out who they are in the world. (Though this is Okorafor's first novel marketed to adult readers, these passages are very much a product of her young-adult background.) All will be changed by their experiences, whether they complete the journey or not.
Structurally, the book is far from perfect. There is an extended sequence in the second half, when our companions spend time among a nomadic tribe, where the story really drags its feet. Knowing the narrative formula it's all based upon, it begins to feel like Okorafor is taking far too long to reach an inevitable conclusion.
These are not slight problems. But I was so invested in following Onyesonwu and Mwita through to whatever fates awaited them — fates they've both come to terms with — that once these passages gave way to the story's climax, which manages the remarkable feat of being thrilling and unsettling in equal measure, all was forgiven. The net result is an absorbing and often emotionally exhausting adventure. There's a journey here that should not be undertaken by the faint of heart, into a world that's closer to our own than we might wish to admit. Brave readers should count themselves lucky to be guided through this journey by such an extraordinary and visionary talent as Nnedi Okorafor.