Friday, January 11, 2013

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor --- review

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.

And here's what I thought:  The first word that comes to my mind after finishing this book is: transformative.   I've never read anything quite like this book, and felt not only transported to a different place when I was reading it, but I felt like every time I put it down, the characters and story stayed with me.

The author does such a great job of pulling together realistic and fantastic elements, and combines this with unforgettable characters.  I found Onyesonwu so compelling; she has admitted flaws, but so much inner strength.  Her journey to understand not only herself, but her place in her world, and her destiny, is a long one, and filled with difficult tests.  The author doesn't shy away from subject that are difficult, or make you recoil, and instead, faces things head-on, unflinching.  There isn't any prettying-up of ugliness. You don't want to look, but you cannot look away. There are dark moments, to be sure, but I found that didn't keep me from turning the pages.  I've read several nonfiction books about different regions of Africa, and maybe that's why certain things that happened in this book, as awful as they were, didn't surprise me.  I think it's especially interesting that while this book is set in a future version of Africa, some of the things found in today's Africa still remain.  I felt the story and characters were very grounded, even as the story brought in elements of a future-imagined place and peoples.

This book was nominated for several awards, and won the 2011 World Fantasy Award.  It's a book that has been on my TBR list for a long time, and now that I've finally picked it up, I'm already looking forward to a re-read.

First lines:  My life fell apart when I was sixteen.  Papa died.  He had such a strong heart, yet he died.  Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop?  It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art.  He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop.  So what was it that killed him?  To this day I can't be sure.  I hope it had nothing to do with what I did back then.


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