In post-apocalyptic Africa, there are two peoples: the dark-skinned, oppressed Okeke and the lighter-skinned, dominant Nuru. Our heroine, Onyesonwu—whose name means “Who fears death”—is born a mixed-race Ewu, conceived in a rape during a genocidal raid on her mother’s village. The rape was intended to create a powerful sorcerer, and it succeeded, though not quite as Onyesonwu’s evil magical father had intended. Emotional, passionate, curious, strong, impulsive, and fiercely independent, Onyesonwu is a girl who is no one’s sidekick.
The first half of the book shows Onyesonwu learning who she is while battling prejudice, both as a woman and as an Ewu. At first she tries to conform to the norms of the Okeke village in which she and her mother ultimately reside, but at the same time she begins to exhibit incredible powers that ensure that she will always be an outsider. Eventually she bonds with three other girls with whom she shares a clitoridectomy ceremony, and she grows close to a mysterious Ewu boy named Mwita. Then, when she finally persuades an extremely reluctant sorcerer to take her on as a student, Onyesonwu begins to learn her destiny.
As tends to happen in fantasy novels, there is a prophecy. Although Onyesonwu does not originally seem to fit the description of the one who will literally rewrite the rules, it soon becomes clear that fate may be wrong about some details. As tends to happen in fantasy novels, a journey must therefore be undertaken, and a fellowship must be formed.
The second half of the book follows Onyesonwu and her posse through five months in the desert on the way to a showdown with her father, who leads the Nuru in attacks meant to obliterate the Okeke. Nnedi Okorafor is a skilled raconteur, but given the buildup, the ending comes so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. And Onyesonwu is hardly an untainted heroine, given the destruction she heaps on two villages along her journey. Indeed, she exhibits—even welcomes—the violent tendencies that Ewu are assumed to possess because of the violence of their conception, which is the reason why Ewu are universally shunned. But then, conception is a central theme of this book, and Onyesonwu’s Ewu lover Mwita, born not of rape but of love between the two races, is a moderating force and a healer.
The book has a hard time settling into a groove. It feels at times like a YA novel, except that Onyesonwu and Mwita (not to mention Onyesonwu’s girlfriends) are constantly having sex. (Although their sex feels like YA sex—lots of reaching for each other, and then….) The story follows a fantasy outline, but it throws science fiction elements into the mix without following the paths they suggest. And though there’s nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, there are a ridiculous number of overly sly hints about how this world came to be, with too many questions left unanswered—including the question of how a Schoolhouse Rock lyric might become embedded in post-apocalyptic African lore.
This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a great many rewards. The author has grand ambitions for her story, most of which are at least partially satisfied. The female characters, Onyesonwu in particular, are fully drawn and thoroughly believable. The storytelling is deft and compelling. And the author uses her tale to ponder a variety of social topics,from feminism to racial inequality, from acceptance of one’s fate to control of one’s body. A reader is left to wonder whether “Who fears death” is a question or a statement, and whether the answer even matters to one for whom dying is just another bump in the road.