starlady: (the last enemy)
[personal profile] starlady
Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death. New York: Daw Books, 2010.

This is an intense, roiling, powerful melange of a book. I read it in about three hours on a plane, which may not have been the strictly best thing for my mental state, but was a very interesting experience.

I borrowed my copy of this book to [personal profile] oliviacirce before I wrote this post, so my apologies if I get any of the names wrong; corrections welcome, as always.

[warning: the following contains discussion of weaponized rape, female genital mutilation, and genocide]

Okorafor's first novel for adults is set in a postapocalyptic Africa that has been vastly changed over the centuries, making even the Old Africa Era that is our future very remote. I suspect this is the same general setting as Okorafor's earlier books for young adults, though I don't think any of them take place in the exact same place or time. The protagonist of our story is Onyesonwu, whose name literally means "Who fears death?" and who is a child of rape. Her mother is one of the dark-skinned Okeke people, of whom it is written in the Great Book that they are doomed to be slaves to to the yellow-skinned Niru for their sins in the OAE, marking Onyesonwu literally as a Ewu, a child of violence whose works will only result in violence. After six years alone in the desert, living as nomads, Onyesonwu and her mother move to a town in the West, where her mother remarries and the townspeople are contnet to disregard the stories of genocide in the East. But after Onyesonwu's adopted father dies and it becomes clear that her biological father is the Niru sorcerer who's spearheading the Okeke genocide, Onyesonwu enters training as a sorcerer despite her gender and eventually comes to realize that she is the one who will rewrite the Great Book and saves what remains of the Kingdom of Sudan, or no one will.

As well as being a sorcerer, Onyesonwu is an Eshu, a shapeshifter, a fact that saves her life numerous times and becomes important when she regrets her decision to undergo female circumcision at the age of eleven. Onyesonwu does not go on her journey alone--her soulmate, an Ewu like her, and her three bonded female friends, with whom she underwent the rite of circumcision and adulthood, as well as the husband of one of her friends, go with her. All of them are tested on the journey, and changed by it.

Someone at WisCon observed that science fiction is always about the now, which is the same of historiography, and in some ways this book is very obviously about our now too: genocide, weaponized rape, and female "circumcision" (genital mutilation) are very much things that happen today in many parts of the world, not just in Africa. I know some people have objected to the inclusion of FGM in this book; inasmuch as Onyesonwu and the girls who undergo the rite have some choice in the matter, I don't share those objections, and Okorafor is merciless at depicting the physiological, magical, and psychological consequences of that act on all four of them, as well as their dawning horror and rage subsequent to fully understanding them. She's merciless too at describing Onyesonwu's mother's rape, and at the relentless violence that dogs the women who dare to overstep the boundaries of social norms; there are multiple attempted stonings in this book, some of which succeed. And that too is not a fantastical element.

Through it all, though, Onyesonwu is an amazing character: a messiah who refuses to die, a woman who refuses to give up, a wronged human being who refuses to let go of her anger or of her knowledge that she is a fully human being. The world she moves through is wondrous too, in the same full measure that it contains such horrors, and Okorafor's future Africa is painfully vibrant and believable. I particularly loved the final twist at the ending, though given the subject matter, it's clearly not a book that everyone will be able to read. (Nor, probably, is it a book for people who are squicked by extensive discussion of bodily processes and fluids. There's a lot of blood and semen and vomit, on top of everything else.) And while I appreciated the depiction of restrictive gender roles in flux, in no small part due to Onyesonwu's being herself, there's also a tiny part of me that is very depressed at such a vision of an unequal future, for all that it's disturbingly plausible. With all those caveats in mind, however, I would highly recommend the book. I can't wait to read Okorafor's newest, Akata Witch.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-06 17:19 (UTC)
boundbooks: Zhang Ziyi (bird: falcon)
From: [personal profile] boundbooks
This is totally the book I had on my 'likely to get the Nebula' list. I thought it was very, very good, but my only real quibble was that I felt that the middle was missing. Not 'the story advanced a year or so,' but flat out missing. By 'middle', I mean the part where she gets all of her training alongside her boyfriend/lover. I would have liked to read that, and I was a bit sad that it wasn't included.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-06 17:57 (UTC)
amalnahurriyeh: XF: Plastic Flamingo from Acadia, with text "bring it on." (Default)
From: [personal profile] amalnahurriyeh
...and I just requested this from the library. Your recs are awesome, thanks for doing this.

(no subject)

Date: 2011-06-08 20:36 (UTC)
eccentricyoruba: (dusk)
From: [personal profile] eccentricyoruba
I need to read this book.

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