Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl growing up in Africa – Sudan is implied – after an unnamed apocalyptic event. Onyesonwu is not just any girl, though – she is an Ewu, a child born of rape between an Okeke (black) mother and a Nuru (white) man. Her pale skin and freckles act as an indicator of her outsider status, and she and her mother are pariahs within their desert community of Jwahir.
As far back as anyone can remember, the Okeke have always been poor and bound to serve the Nuru. So it says in the Great Book, which claims that the Okekes’ pride and greed caused the world’s original collapse, and that the Nurus are the ones tasked with reversing this grave error. This devotion to the Great Book has turned deadly, though, as a series of coordinated attacks by Nuru people (led by one powerful Nuru sorceror in particular) have led to entire Okeke villages being slaughtered, and to the systematic rape of Okeke women.
As Onyesonwu grows up, she realizes that she has special powers – another trademark of being Ewu – including shapeshifting and communing with supernatural spirits. Eventually, she realizes that it is her destiny to end the war that the Nuru people are waging on the Okeke. Also, in the ultimate example of the political becoming the personal, she learns that the Nuru man who raped her mother is none other than the sorcerer leading the Nurus’ campaign of genocide.
Part of why I dislike the book is that being an outsider is one of Onyesonwu’s few defining character traits. In Jwahir, Ewu children like her are outcasts, and the elders of the city refuse to teach her about magic because she is a woman. In addition, in an attempt to become accepted by within her community, she undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy only to find out later that the knives used to cut her flesh were bespelled so that she and other women would be unable to enjoy sexual pleasure outside of marriage.
So, she’s hated because of her dubious parentage, she’s kept in ignorance because of her gender, and she’s prevented from exercising her sexual agency. This is a trifecta of things guaranteed to piss off a Women’s Studies major like me – but the fact that it’s there is just a tad too on-the-nose. As I read the book, I kept on thinking I get it, Onyesonwu is an embodiment of epistemic privilege. Can you stop now and finish with the righteous outrage, please?.
The thing that’s really confusing about her enforced ignorance is that her tutors know she’s the central figure in a great prophecy to change the world. Why refuse to teach her, then, if so much depends on her mastery of magic? What’s more, it turns out that the prophecy is well-known, although most others think that the central figure it refers to is a Nuru man, not an Ewu woman. Why exactly her tutors know the truth when few others do – and then refuse to act on this knowledge – is a huge plot hole that’s never fully explained.
On top of that, the pacing in this novel is incredibly off. Onyesonwu journeys across the desert with a small group of friends to fulfill her destiny and stop her father’s genocide. However, the journey itself doesn’t start until nearly halfway through the book, and its salient feature is the sexual frustration her friends feel. Conveniently, Onyesonwu has the ability to grow back her cut-off flesh because she’s a shapeshifter. Even more conveniently, her failed attempt to heal a severely deformed woman (somehow?) imbues her with the knowledge to restore the cut-off flesh of her friends. Because obviously, the most important problem to solve in the midst of genocidal ruin is making sure your companions don’t get bitchy because they can’t have sex.
As the book’s fractious friendships, arguments, convenient revelations (Oh, so it turns out that Onyesonwu’s mother was also a sorceress? You don’t say!), and shifting sexual liaisons continued, the final page kept drawing closer and closer, and I had no idea how there would be enough room for a satisfying showdown between father and daughter.
Short version: There isn’t.
Long version: She meets with her father and attacks him, but doesn’t manage to kill him. She then manipulates her body in such a way that the resulting magic kills all of the men and impregnates all of the women in the surrounding environs. She then finds the master copy of the Great Book whose teachings are the source of the Nurus’ hatred for the Okekes, and magically rewrites it to prevent that hatred from ever forming. She then gets stoned to death by the remaining Nuru populace for her trouble.
If there was ever a literary embodiment of “nasty, brutish, and short”, the ending of Who Fears Death is it.
Throughout, I never felt a sense of wonder or awe when I read this book. I fail to think of a single sentence, image, or paragraph that stopped me cold with its eloquence, or sent shivers up my spine with its beauty. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the single most damning thing I can say in this review.
I really wanted to like Who Fears Death. For one, it’s written by a woman of colour featuring a female protagonist who is also of colour. I’m aware of the ways in which speculative fiction has marginalized non-white, non-male voices, so I’ve been making an effort to counteract that in my reading choices. Besides that, it tackles a variety of topics that our society either doesn’t talk about or tries hard to avoid discussing, including female genital cutting, genocide, and rape as a weapon of war.
Ultimately, though, I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Who Fears Death, and read it mainly because I wanted to be a Good Feminist and assuage some of my White Liberal Guilt by reading about something depressing but politically important. Depressing as the subject matter was, I still hoped for at least a little bit of grace, but never found it.
Up next: Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain