“Humiliation and confusion were the staples of my childhood. Is it a wonder that anger was never far behind?”
Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child born of the violence that the Nuru have long visited upon the Okeke people they have enslaved in post-apocalyptic Sudan. Nuru and Okeke alike regard her as an abomination, but she is protected by her determined mother, and her highly respected adoptive father. Her magical talents begin to manifest early, setting her even further apart from her Okeke peers in the village of Jwahir. But things begin to change when she meets Mwita, an Ewu boy with connections to the village sorcerer, Aro, who has never agreed to take a woman as his student. Her untrained power ties her to a larger destiny, one will impact the future of Nuru and Okeke alike.
Onyesonwu is the child of rape, and this is only the first of many brutal and violent events that are recounted in great detail in the opening of pages of Who Fears Death. For anyone who might struggle with reading about rape and female genital cutting, this book and this review may not be for you. A variety of violent deaths are also graphically depicted, including more than one woman being killed by stoning, and another woman who is torn limb from limb by an angry mob. The violence is generally motivated by either the race or gender of the victim(s) and often by both. While the graphic depictions let up somewhat in the later part of the book, I honestly struggled to continue reading after making it through the first hundred pages. It took me two weeks to get through the book, though I put it down for a week in the middle.
Who Fears Death highlights the reinforcement of sexism and the policing of gender boundaries that can be conducted by women as much as, or in some circumstances more than, by men. Onyesonwu’s childhood friend Luyu, for example, is shamed mostly by her friends and other women for her sexual appetites, which are described as masculine. However, the men also grapple with sexism. Aro has never agreed to take a woman as a student, out of fear for the supposed destruction that can occur when a female sorceress conceives. The Seer who prophesies a Chosen One is so bewildered by the idea that his vision may have depicted a woman that he actively proclaims that the Chosen One will be a tall, Nuru man with a beard. And even Mwita, Onyesonwu’s lover, contends with jealousy because he has been unable to pass the initiation necessary to become a sorcerer himself.
Who Fears Death is set in the future, but in many respects does not feel very futuristic. The most common form of technology is the capture station, a device that can extract moisture from the air for drinking in the desolate, sandy waste that Onyesonwu and her companions must traverse. Some people have portable computer-like devices or radios in the cities, but in general, much technology has passed away from the world, lost in the mysterious apocalypse which The Great Book claims the Okeke bear responsibility for. It is this cardinal sin that is also used to justify their enslavement to the Nuru. The history is vague, lost in the mists of time, but the magic that animates Onyesonwu’s unique world is vivid and vibrant.
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