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Who Fears Death Paperback – June 7, 2011


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: DAW Trade; Reprint edition (June 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0756406692
  • ISBN-13: 978-0756406691
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Origin Story

Nnedi Okorafor is a writer of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. She is know for her young adult novels, including The Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker.

“My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died.”

Those are the opening lines of Who Fears Death. I remember when I wrote them. I was thinking of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I was thinking of change, cultural shift, chaos. Okonkwo’s death. And my own father’s very recent death. Yeah, all that in those two lines.

In more ways than one, the opening scene of Who Fears Death, titled “My Father’s Face”, was the beginning of it all. Originally, it was not the beginning of the novel. This scene takes place well into the story when my main character Onyesonwu is sixteen and has been through so much. The original beginning was when Onyesonwu was five years old and happy, living with her mother in the desert. Nevertheless, “My Father’s Face” was the first scene I wrote.

Though my stories tend to be mostly linear, I’m a non-linear writer. I’ll write the middle, then the ending, then the beginning and kind of jump around until I’m done. Then I’ll tie all the scenes together and neaten it up. Nevertheless, when Who Fears Death was all said and done, I wasn’t surprised that “My Father’s Face” turned out to be the beginning of the actual book.

I started writing Who Fears Death just after my father passed in 2004. I was very very close to my father and writing was my way of staying sane. I based “My Father’s Face” on a moment I experienced at my father’s wake when everyone had cleared out of the room and I found myself alone with his body.

I was kneeling there looking at his face, thinking how much it no longer looked like him and how terrible that was. My morbid thoughts were driving me into deeper despair. Then suddenly I felt an energy move though me. This energy felt highly destructive, as if it could bring down the entire building. Almost all the details in the scene I went on to write were true, I felt them…well, up to the part where Onyesonwu makes her father’s body breath.

As soon as I wrote that scene, everything else rushed at me. My father’s passing caused me to think about death, fear, the unknown, sacrifice, destiny and cosmic trickery. Only a week or so after my father’s passing, I read the Washington Post article, We Want to Make a Light Baby: Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing by Emily Wax. I was absolutely infuriated. The storytelling spider in my head started weaving faster. I realized that this article was showing me why the people in my story’s town disliked Onyesonwu and why she was so troubled.

My mother, my sister Ifeoma and my brother Emezie flew with my father’s body back to Nigeria for his burial. When they returned, I learned through my siblings about the way widows were treated within Igbo custom, even the ones with PhDs…like my mother. I was again infuriated. And I was reminded yet again of why I was a feminist.

A year later, I went to Nigeria for the one-year memorial where I met my cousin Chinyere’s fiancé Chidi. His last name was Onyesonwu. I was intrigued. I knew “onye” meant “who” and “onwu” meant death. I wondered if it was an ogbanje name (these named often have the word “death” in them). I’d always been interested in the concept of the ogbanje. Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I asked my cousin’s fiancé what his name meant (I thought it would be rude to ask if it was an ogbanje name. Plus it was his last name, not his first.). He said it meant, “Who fears death.” That night, I changed my character’s name and the title of the story. When I did that, it was as if the novel snapped into focus.

During that trip, I touched my father’s grave. I heard stories about the Biafran War and arguments about how what happened during this civil war was indeed the genocide of the Igbo people. I saw death on the highway and thanked the Powers That Be that my daughter (who was some months over one year old) was asleep. I got to watch the women in my father’s village sing all night in remembrance of my father. My maternal grandmother, mother, daughter and I were all in the same room at the same time- four generations. My sister Ngozi and I visited the lagoon that seemed so huge when we were kids but was really quite small. It was populated by hundreds and hundreds of colorful butterflies.

I wrote, conceived and incubated parts of Who Fears Death while in my father’s village, sometimes scribbling notes while sitting in the shade on the steps outside or by flashlight when the lights went out. I wrote notes on the plane ride home, too. When I think back to those times, I was in such a strange state of mind. My default demeanor is happy. I think during those times I was as close to sad as I could get.

When I got back to the States, I kept right on writing. Who Fears Death was a tidal wave and hurricane combined. It consumed all of my creativity and sucked in all the issues I was dealing with and dwelling on. It mixed with my rage and grief and my natural furious optimism. Yet when it came to writing the story, I was more the recorder than the writer. I never knew what was going to happen until my character told me and my hands typed it. When I finished Who Fears Death, it was seven hundred pages long. A Book 1 and a Book 2. Don Maass (my agent) felt this size was too great and suggested that I pare it down. This process took me another two years.

One of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria’s great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces.” This tiger of a story definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I’m glad I was ready for it.

--Nnedi Okorafor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Well-known for young adult novels (The Shadow Speaks; Zahrah the Windseeker), Okorafor sets this emotionally fraught tale in postapocalyptic Saharan Africa. The young sorceress Onyesonwu—whose name means Who fears death?—was born Ewu, bearing a mixture of her mother's features and those of the man who raped her mother and left her for dead in the desert. As Onyesonwu grows into her powers, it becomes clear that her fate is mingled with the fate of her people, the oppressed Okeke, and that to achieve her destiny, she must die. Okorafor examines a host of evils in her chillingly realistic tale—gender and racial inequality share top billing, along with female genital mutilation and complacency in the face of destructive tradition—and winds these disparate concepts together into a fantastical, magical blend of grand storytelling. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nnedi's work titled "Weapons of Mass Creation", The New York Times called Nnedi's imagination "stunning". Her novels include Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award) and Long Juju Man (winner of the Macmillan Writer's Prize for Africa). Her latest novel, Who Fears Death (DAW Books, 2010), is a dark, gritty magical realist narrative that evenly combines African literature and fantasy/science fiction into a powerful story of genocide and of the woman who reshapes her world. Nnedi holds a PhD in English and currently is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. Visit Nnedi at nnedi.com.

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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She feels lust and love and jealousy.
Kelly (Fantasy Literature)
While there are real-world political and social issues addressed, the story -- Onyesonwu's story -- is what matters.
Laurel
Nnedi Okorafor: Congratulations on a wonderful book!
D. S. HARDEN

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Laurel VINE VOICE on May 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Set in an alternate/post-apocalyptic/futuristic African desert (with magic) "Who Fears Death" opens with a teenage Onyesonwu at her father's funeral. Grieving, she briefly and unintentionally starts to bring him back to life. She is a sorcerer, feared and hated because of her powers and her parentage. Her abilities, though spectacular, mostly endanger her and cause her suffering. But they also lead her on a quest to save her mother's people from impending war, slavery, and eventual genocide.

The story is non-linear and framed as a more mature Onyesonwu's last words. Though complex and exotic, the way it's told makes everything clear and easy to follow, with background introduced just when we need to know it.

In its skeleton, the novel is not so different from a classic quest fantasy. There's a magical apprenticeship, prophecies, a quest to fight evil, and travels with a band of companions, but the details make the experience very, very different.

Note that "Who Fears Death" deals frankly with some horrific subjects. Be prepared to face the reality of topics like rape, war, genocide, and female circumcision. It's never gory, gratuitous, or -- amazingly -- particularly depressing (!!), but nothing is glossed over.

The characters were all distinct, real, and interesting. The plot is engaging and logical. While there are real-world political and social issues addressed, the story -- Onyesonwu's story -- is what matters. Best of all (sorry, I'm shallow) there are numerous elements which are just extremely *cool*. Vivid, beautiful, fun, terrifying, and numinous, in turn.

Overall, highly recommended.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Kevin L. Nenstiel TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Nnedi Okorafor unites the best of Achebe's Things Fall Apart with The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings in a post-apocalyptic fantasy that sadly just thuds. Her story begins pregnant with possibility and rich with the kind of language and imagery that has long drawn me to post-colonial African literature, and I knew I'd love it. But then it bogs down in extraneous content and never achieves real traction.

Conceived in violence and born in war, Onyesonwu has fought for everything all her life. But she becomes apprenticed to a great wizard and finally finds her place in society. That is, until one rash choice draws the attention of the brutal biological father she has never met. Suddenly Onyesonwu must leave the only life she's ever known to confront her father before his dark wizardry consumes her people.

The first third of this novel really sings. Growing up an outcast in a world that denies its violent heritage, Onyesonwu must uncover her destiny as a stranger. Her evocative descriptions create a lively society built on the mysterious foundations of a dead world. Living on the outside, Onyesonwu sees truths her peers reject, and she describes them in such incisive detail that I believe I could travel to this place.

But then the story shifts to a conventional quest fantasy as Onyesonwu and her friends seek her father. And the quest drags in an episodic fashion. The team has encounters, sometimes proves its mettle, but most often talks interminably.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Live2Cruise VINE VOICE on May 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It's difficult to describe this novel, which has elements of fantasy, supernatural, and speculative fiction. It's set in Africa, in an apparently futuristic time after a disaster has occurred which has caused technology to fall by the wayside as magic and sorcery flourish. There is growing conflict as the Nuru people attempt to exterminate the Okeke based on writings in their holy book, "The Great Book." Into this canvas steps Onyesonwu, the heroine, whose name means "Who Fears Death." Onye is the product of a Nuru soldier's rape of her Okeke mother. As a young child, Onye discovers her own magical powers and is drawn into a fascinating world of sorcery, prophecies and a frightening end game to the genocide spearheaded by her biological father. Onye learns that she has a powerful role to play in determining the fate of this world.

I loved this novel and found that everything around me seemed to disappear as I read it. The author is a master at world-building and created so sharp and vivid a picture of this magical world that it felt very real. The characters, too, were clearly brought to life and easy to care about. The storyline went at a good pace, with some suspenseful moments and some tearful ones. While set in a fictional world, the story in many ways mirrors present-day Africa, particularly the genocide in the Sudan. I think this novel would appeal to a varied audience, from those who love African fiction to those who enjoy supernatural/ fantasy tales.
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40 of 47 people found the following review helpful By E. Smiley on April 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I'd heard good things about this book. But between its poor structure, its infuriating outdated tropes, its overpowered heroine and its all-too-easy magical solutions to real-life problems, I'm left wondering why so many people like it.

Who Fears Death is a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel, set in a future Sudan with many of the problems that plague the region today (genocide, weaponized rape, female genital mutilation, etc.). The narrator, Onyesonwu, is a child of rape, who faces discrimination based on her gender and her mixed-race status while growing up, but goes on in the second half of the novel to undertake a quest to stop the genocide against her mother's people.

So far, so good. I liked the vividly described setting and culture, the heroine's interactions with her friends, the simple, direct prose and the way the book deals with sexism. I didn't like the long passages dealing with the spirit world or explaining how magic works (your mileage may vary; I find that kind of stuff boring). The real problems, however, became more evident the further I got into the book. Some SPOILERS follow.

1) As this book becomes a save-the-world quest novel, the subplots quickly overwhelm the main plot. A large chunk of the second half of the book is spent on intra-group tensions (who's sleeping with whom, etc.) and wacky wayside tribes; only a few pages are spent actually saving the world at the end. It's nice that Okorafor doesn't romanticize the questors, but if you're going to write a book about stopping a genocide, your characters need to spend more than a few pages actually doing that.
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