Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Recommendation: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death recently won the World Fantasy Award. In honor of this award, I decided to review it here.

For those of you who haven't heard of this novel, the basic plot can be summed up with "girl discovers her powers and then goes on a quest to save the world." And while that by itself doesn't sound very original, there are two aspects of this novel that make it absolutely worth reading: the world and the overall style and execution.

Here is my review:

It's difficult to rate this book, because it's very different from a lot of other fantasy books. Not only is it set in Africa, which is very rare in fantasy, but the book has an entirely different feel. The atmosphere is very mystical, and it often feels more like magic realism than fantasy. 

As a result, this book gets away with stuff that would otherwise make me groan. If you stuck Onyesonwu in any other fantasy novel, her 'special snowflake' status would probably piss me off. The purity of Daib's evilness would never be acceptable. The way Onyesonwu is able to quickly repair a broken and divisive society is also completely implausible. However, the thing about this book is that I didn't expect plausibility. 

This is the first novel I can remember reading where I could actually suspend disbelief, and where I didn't feel like I needed a logical explanation for everything. In many ways, the story feels almost fairy tale-like. (Well, not "fairy tale," but like a story you would tell around the campfire.) 

The interesting thing is that the mystical, tale-like atmosphere doesn't take anything away from good concrete world-building. I wish I could comfortably navigate through my constructed world the way Okorafor does. She writes in details like cactus candy, rapas, water capture stations, and juju without drawing any attention to the fact that they might be unusual to many of her readers. 

In terms of characters, I like how Okorafor develops her entire cast, including the secondary characters. Luyu was probably my favorite character. I had some issues with Onyesonwu, however. At times, she seemed like a self-centered bitch. I hated the way she antagonized Diti during their fight. Although she had valid reasons to be angry at Diti, Diti herself had good reasons to be upset, especially considering that she gave up so much in order to go on a perilous journey with Onyesonwu. I also disliked Mwita, and didn't understand why Onyesonwu was so in love with him. He's often controlling, jealous, and kind of a dick.

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