In post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways, yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different – special – she names her child Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient tongue.
As Onye grows, it doesn’t take long for her to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her violent conception. She is Ewu – a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by both tribes.
But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As Onye grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.
Desperate to elude her would-be murderer, and to understand her own nature, she seeks help from the magic practitioners of her village. But, even among her mother’s people, she meets with frustration prejudice because she is Ewu and female. Yet Onye persists.
Eventually her magical destiny and her rebellious nature will force her to leave home and embark on a journey that will cause her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learn why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.
I originally bought this book as something to present to the UC Santa Barbara Reads program, which means something that would be read by the school and the community with events, speakers, and other activities planned around the book. I stand by that, although Who Fears Death is not the selected book. I’m going to assume here that a lot of people don’t know as much about dystopias as I do. I read them constantly, write them for fun, and have also done some research on them. What I learned is that some people believe dystopias can be used to talk about political issues in a ‘safe’ environment because the issues talked about in the book are separate from the real world – distant, happening to someone else (see this article by Melisa Ames if you want to know more).
The UCSB community is concerned with issues like race and inequality and I thought this book was a great way to engage people with a novel set in a future Sudan (I believe) with fantasy elements. That captures two birds with one stone, in my opinion. Get people interested with the magic, make them stay for the political discussions many will likely have after reading it.
But let me tell you, this book is not for the little ones. While it is not descriptive about intercourse, it happens often in the second half. It is fairly descriptive about the rape of Onye’s mother several times throughout. Also, some language things, but hey, I’m probably more of a stickler for language than most. Just putting it out there that parents might want to read this before allowing their kids to.
If you stare at the picture I’ve posted of this book long enough, one thing you are certain to see is how incredibly banged up it is. The cause is me carrying it around literally everywhere for several weeks, which is how long it took me to get through. Normally, I don’t take that long, and if I do, that means I hate the book and can’t get through it. That was not the case with this one. Yes, it took me a long time to get through, but it wasn’t because I didn’t like it. No, it wasn’t my favorite, and I only felt like I could read a couple chapters at a time, but I still liked it quite a bit, so I am trying to figure out my hesitation with this one. I think it might stem from the writing style. Maybe I loved the content, but there was something with the style of writing that didn’t keep me engaged. I think it might simply be a cultural style thing. The author is from Nigeria, now in America. There are some phrases that give me pause, like ‘gnashes teeth’. And maybe this has something to do with me, or maybe it really is a cultural thing, I have no idea, but every time I saw that phrase, which was quite a bit, I thought of zombies. Yes, zombies smacking their jaws really fast as they try to eat your arm. I’m assuming the characters were grinding their teeth or something like that, rather than momentarily turning into a zombie. So that phrase struck me as a bit odd, and the other thing with the writing style is that it often went along the ‘tell’ route over the ‘show’ route more than many books, which is probably good because the things cut out by these telling moments were not as important as the show moments. I think this book had to include telling moments, though, because most books (I read at least) take place within a matter of days so you can stick with the characters for the entire time and don’t need the time jump. With this one, you get the moment of Onye’s conception to the end of the story, some 20-odd years later.
Ah, yes, magic. Well done, I must say. Some of the types of magic include a spirit world Onye can interact with, the physical world, and transformations (like she can turn into different animals). Huge dust storms controlled by man with people living in the eye of the storm. Girl into vulture. Sight across long distances. Healing. Death and resurrection. Cool stuff.
This book isn’t outright in-your-face dystopia, unlike most of them. Other’s are like, “Oh look at this horrible-ness, all these people dying and starving and living in squalor.” But Who Fears Death puts little hints of it around, like, “In the past, there were computers really thick, like a half inch thick.” And you’re like, okay, this is the future then, seeing as computers are like a half inch now. The other thing, the one element I was really curious about, was the water reclaimer. This book takes place in the desert and not all of the cities are among bodies of water, so they get the water from water reclaimers, devices that pull water from the moisture in the air. Incredibly cool, but I wanted to know a little more about them, seeing as this could be something invented in the future. Would the water reclaimers have trouble in a drier climate? If there are a lot of water reclaimers working in a small area, would they work less efficiently, seeing as water is being sucked out of the air all around them? If you were standing next to a water reclaimer, could you tell the air is drier? Then again, that sort of information would probably take a scientist’s consultation, a lot more effort than plausible for a small element of an almost 400 paged novel.
Then there are the relationships in this novel. They are the type we wish we had. Onye’s bond with her mother, her bond with her Ewu friend (then boyfriend and lover) Mwita, and her friends Luyu, Binta, and Diti (but mainly the first two). The thing I love about the bonds other than her mother is that we get to see them form. We see the conflict between these characters, how they become friends, how they battle between one another, then come back together. It is realistic. Mwita and Onye don’t have an insta-love story. It takes years for them to become more than friends. None of this would have come about if Onye isn’t the person she is. Fierce. Rash. Loyal. Brave. Maybe stupid at times, because she won’t think anything through, but that is what Mwita, Luyu, Binta, and Diti are there for – to balance the aspects of her character. Although, they are all a bit rash, considering they are new adults leaving their homes at a moment’s notice to rewrite the equivalent of the Bible.
Overall, pretty good, pretty good. As slowly as I read it, I still enjoyed it.