Nnedi Okorafor, “Who Fears Death” (2010) – Here we have a fantasy/scifi novel that draws from both Africa’s traditional storytelling and its contemporary issues and crises. The main character, Onyesonwu, is the product of rape as a weapon of war, in an ongoing conflict between the dominant Nuru tribe and the insurgent Okeke. Raised by her mother in an Okeke village, Onyesonwu is an outcast but develops magical powers- first shapeshifting into various animals, then numerous others.
The first third of the book is the best part, as she develops her powers, induces the local magicians to teach her against their resistance, and learns her destiny- to go among the oppressed Okeke far from home and bring an end to the fighting, as well as confronting the evil Nuru wizard who is helping spur the conflict.
The rest of the book drags, unfortunately. Okorafor is also a successful young adult fiction writer and it shows as she takes her characters out to the desert and has them get into teenage dramatics with each other. We go from learning the ins and outs of magic and ethnic conflict to protracted drama between Onyesonwu’s interchangeable friends with the suddenness that the end of “Huck Finn” becomes a hundred pages of minstrel routine. Quest narratives always have some back and forth within the group, but “Who Fears Death” loses a ton of momentum and never quite regains it. The ending has a pretty cool magical catastrophe in it but by then you can’t help but wonder at the book that could have been with this premise. ***’