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Who Fears Death: Magic and Adventure in Post-Apocalytic Africa

Updated on December 30, 2011

There are shockingly few African-based fantasy stories. While these days you can find fantasies based around non-European or Western cultures (mostly Asian ones), the only African-based fantasies I can think of off the top of my head are "The Ear, the Eye, and The Arm," "A Girl Named Disaster," and possibly the storyline behind the "Mirage" and "Visions" block of Magic: The Gathering.

This makes the work of Nnedi Okorafor, an American author of Nigerian descent, all the more interesting, as as far as I can tell all of her books are fantasies (some of them combinations of fantasy and science fiction) in an African setting. It's always great to see stories set deeply in underrepresented cultures, especially from people who come from those cultures.

Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ongundimu is Ewu, a child of rape. Her mother is of the Okeke tribe, whilst her father was the leader of a raiding party by the oppressive Nuru tribe. After the rape, her mother wandered out into the desert, had Onyesonwu, and survived there until the two moved to the town of Jwahir when Onyesonwu was about five.

Because of her status as Ewu, Onyesonwu is viewed with suspicion by her Okeke neighbors. Her discovery of her potential for magical powers don't help things, especially as it becomes clear that her biological father, who is a powerful sorcerer, is watching her and wishes for her death.

Learning magic from a fellow Ewu child, a young man named Mwita, Onyesonwu becomes committed to becoming a sorcerer herself, and traveling to the West to change things for the Okeke and the Nuru and to kill her evil father, despite the fact down that path lies her own death.

Onyesonwu is a great character. Headstrong and extremely quick to anger, she is also incredibly brave and determined. When she knows that what is happening in the world around her is wrong she stops at nothing to correct it, even if she doesn't necessarily know how. Okorafor does a great job of balancing out her negative and positive traits, creating a character that is flawed but fascinating to read about.

I also loved Okorafor's world building. The world is a sort of post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa, where technology does exist but is rare and doesn't work quite right, so the world is at a de facto pre-industrial level. Magic exists but is incredibly secretive, and magic users are viewed as being useful but somewhat strange. What I most admired, however, was Okorafor's willingness to depict the issues of this society: Onyesonwu is rejected at least as much for being a woman as she is for being Ewu, and female circumcision is a fact of life in Jwahir. However, these extremely non-western cultural differences are not there to merely be criticized by Okorafor, as for instance undergoing her circumcision ceremony is where Onyesonwu first gains female friends from the other girls who also undergo the ceremony. All of this together creates a distinctly non-western world that is fascinating to explore. The only real criticism to voice about it is that it is so interesting that I wish the book could have explored more of the world--we only get a glimpse at Nuru culture and only a hint that there might be cultures besides the Nuru, the Okeke, and the mysterious desert wanderers known as the Vah. I would love another book set in this world which elaborated on the other cultures.

Okorafor is also not the most upfront author. Especially towards the end, what is actually happening is somewhat vague. The end of the story is not so much vague or ambiguous as it is...strange. It doesn't detract from the story, and indeed it is a rather poetic end, but it's still not exactly the kind of ending I was expecting.

However, overall this is a great book. I really liked the world Okorafor conjures up, and I loved the character of Onyesonwu. I'll be on the lookout for more Nnedi Okorafor books, and I recommend anyone interested in African fantasy to check this book out.


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