N.K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, reviews the first adult novel from award-winning writer Nnedi Okorafor. Who Fears Death is a tale of post-apocalyptic Africa, where water is scarce and genocide shapes a young woman's magical abilities.
I've been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor's for awhile now; I love her seminal children's fantasy Zahrah the Windseeker. However, Who Fears Death is adult and science fantasy. Set in a future of unknown distance after an ecological apocalypse - most of the world has become a desert; people use handmade computers and portable water-condensers to survive - the story takes place in an unnamed land beset by conflict. The Nuru, following the dictates of "the Great Book", have taken it upon themselves to destroy the Okeke - a culture whose people they already enslave and oppress. As part of this genocidal campaign, they systematically rape Okeke women, deliberately trying to create mixed-race babies.
Sound familiar? It should. It isn't clear until the end of the story which nation this is - could've been one of any number from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, since the pattern of rape as a weapon of war is by no means exclusive to any one locale. That said, it's pretty clear that this is set in some nation in Africa, and the parallels with Sudan are obvious. Especially as the novel's protagonist Onyesunwo - a child of rape - grows up.
Although she lives far from the conflict, her mother having fled to the more peaceful eastern region after the attack, Onyesunwo lives under the war's shadow constantly, not the least because the is a living warning to the Okeke of the horrors to come. They treat her badly as a result - though she still makes friends, and finds allies, despite the prejudice. As Onyesunwo learns the history behind this war, she discovers that she is the focus of a prophecy that may end it. That is, of course, assuming she can survive the attempts of a powerful sorcerer - her own evil biological father - to kill her, and prevent the prophecy from coming true.
There's a lot of grim, painful stuff in this book: it starts with an horrific gang rape scene (be forewarned), then progresses through violence, torture, prejudice, bullying, female genital cutting, colorism, child soldiering, and more. Yet these are all treated in a nuanced fashion that I've rarely seen in fiction or even nonfiction - there's far more to this story than just "war is bad."
Onyesunwo finds love, and sets forth with her own personal gang of Scoobies to face her father and her fate, and there's a lot of wonder and laughter on this journey. Some elements of mythic beauty, too: the magical house of the elders, for example, and I found myself utterly fascinated by the chapters in which the gang encounters the Red People, a group of nomads who travel amid their own personal sandstorm. The magic system is complex and fascinating; I kinda want to put together an RPG campaign based on it. And not only is Onyesunwo herself a kickass character - I'd pit her against any dozen urban fantasy "chick with a tattoo and a gun" protagonists - but her whole crew of girlfriends (and Mwita, her boyfriend/lover) are pretty hardcore too.
This is a horrifying, inspiring, painful, joyous book.
You can pick up a copy of Who Fears Death via Penguin
This post originally appeared on N.K. Jemisin's blog, Epiphany 2.0