Meagan Reads Speculative Fiction: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Here’s another backlist I recently read as part of a book club with my coworkers. I figured since it’s been slated for production as a television show with HBO though, it might be relevant to some media fans. Readers beware: spoilers are ahead! Also, tw: sexual assault, rape, violence.

who fears death blog
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, 2010

Here’s a quick rundown of the story. The protagonist, Onyesonwu (Onye for short) is what’s known in the culture as Ewu, a child of rape. The first few years of her life are spent with her mother in the desert as nomads, until they finally come to a village and her mother meets a man who becomes Onye’s stepfather. Don’t worry, this is actually a good and healthy relationship, in which he becomes more like her real father.

Over time it’s revealed that she is a sorcerer with Eshu (shapeshifting) powers. She spends a great deal of the first part of the book with Mwita, a boy she meets in the village who’s apprenticed to the head sorcerer Aro, arguing and trying to get Aro to take her on as a trainee. He refuses, because she’s a girl, and women practicing magic to that extent is not accepted in the culture. Eventually though, he gives in because he knows she must take a journey to find and face her biological father, the man who raped her mother, and defeat him. Her father is also a powerful sorcerer, btw.

With Mwita and her friends, Luyu, Binta, and Diti, along for the ride, the group leaves behind the village they’ve always known as home and ventures toward what Onye suspects is certain death. A lot happens on this journey, including the death of Binta, meeting the desert sandstorm people, Diti and her fiance (who’d also tagged along) leaving, until finally they come to face Onye’s biological father and have a showdown.

This is the best I can do to give a concise summary, because truthfully, so much happens in the book, it’s hard to talk about without giving everything away and getting into the nitty gritty. Some themes and topics that are touched upon though are gender roles, women’s sexuality, and rape culture, among others.

In fact, there’s so much going on in this book, that every issue covered doesn’t get a chance to breathe throughout the narrative. Not only does the reader lose out on layered and deep societal problems, but the story elements themselves, like magic and how it works, don’t get a proper explanation.

The first two-thirds of the book move rather slow, but still most of it is filled with details that could have been more fleshed out. Then, in the final part of the book, everything happens all at once. It’s meant to convey the feeling that all the group has been through has led up to this moment, but it happens so fast in the narration itself that it leaves the reader a bit confused, wondering what exactly happened.

I bring this up because I think this was the major issue with the novel. It tried to take on too much all at once and stuff it all into one book, when it would have lent itself better to a serialization. This is where I think the TV show can come in. By extending the story into a made-for-TV format, I think the writers and creators of the content have a chance to expand and stretch out all those details that as a reader I felt got left out of the book.

I’m especially keen to see how the terms of magic will be explained and solidified, to see what rules they apply. I would also like to see the backdrop of the story become a character on its own. The book takes place in postapocalyptic Sudan, but truthfully, the audience gets such fleeting details pointing toward a breakdown in technology and where everything is happening, that it’s easy to forget the time and place this story takes place.

Who else has read the book? Did you have the same issues as I did, or did you enjoy the structure it took? What are your thoughts on its adaptation for TV? Write me in the comments!

This post originally appeared on The Misadventures of a Media Journalist.

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