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  • Writer's pictureJason Dias

Who Fears Death?

Who Fears Death

It’s a question, if you were wondering. As in, “Who fears death? I don’t.”

How to sum up this story? The Okeke women, as part of their ritual of adulthood, are given a small stone to keep under their tongues. In Onyesonwu’s village, that stone is a diamond. But your basic American wouldn’t know it was a diamond if Onyesonwu didn’t name it as such. It isn’t cut the way we cut diamonds for rings and necklaces and so on. It’s smooth, polished and milky.

That’s this novel. The legendary Donald Maass is somewhere in the background of this work and has done the author the wonderful favor of letting her own voice and style shine out. Okorafor doesn’t write like other fantasy writers, and that’s great.

What I mean is, there are some recognizable tropes, but she breaks a lot of literary conventions. Those conventions tie down cookie-cutter, Nordic-mythology fantasists. They don’t hold down Okorafor.

I enjoyed this story from the first page to the last. It took a minute to adjust to the voice but Onyesonwu’s voice comes through clear and bright and strong. The story twists and turns but, at the same time, drives straight at a beautiful, tragic ending that left me in tears. This is a masterpiece and I hope it leaves a stamp on the genre of epic fantasy. The genre needs this kick right in the pants.

I also have to tell you, the events described in here are pretty uncomfortable. There’s violence against women including sexual violence. It’s there for a reason and that reason isn’t just exploitation or drama. There’s slavery and not to play some stale narrative about breaking bonds. There’s an indictment of post-slavery culture. I read about the Nuru town where Nurus were learning to get along without their slaves only because slave labor had provided them comfortable lives, peace and prosperity, reading in my nice house in the suburbs in a country whose economic position in the world depends entirely on the slavery we ostensibly ended in the 19th century.

Truthfully, some of these elements are present in many epic fantasies. In this one, though, they’re a little closer to home or seem that way.

My advice, read it anyway. Anything worth doing is going to involve a little pain. Okorafor faced her pain to write this thing. Her character, Onyesonwu, seems to want all of us to take a good, long look at ours.

This isn’t some simple plea for diversity for its own sake. It’s more complicated than that. It’s more to do with, who gets to tell stories? Who decides? And who profits from the telling? When I wrote For Love of Their Children, I wanted to be inclusive. I was tired of stories about white guys with swords fighting dragons (or orcs or whatever) in rune-bound frozen countries. To get more than that, I had to write it. But in writing a story in part about black Africans, I managed inclusion but not representation. Because it was me doing the writing, with all my associated baggage. I profit from sales of the story, and black Africans had no part in shaping how they wanted to be represented.

Nnedi still gets referred to as an outsider author, but truly very little about this work justifies that status. For pork’s sake, her editor is Maass. It hardly gets more insider than that – or than Martin working on the screen adaptation. Indeed, Okorafor is an insider to the material she’s written. She’s speculating about the future and about magic, but the people – well, she knows them. She IS them.

I’m autistic and increasingly open about that. I see a lot of autism inclusion in modern narratives… but very little autism representation. How many autistic characters on the shows you watch and in the books you read were actually created by, acted by, autistic people? When I wrote For Love of Their Children, I went deliberately out of my lane and did the best I could. When I wrote Finding Life on Mars, a story about neurodivergent characters relating to their neurotypical parents, I was in it.

I can relate to the representation problem because I see these unrealistic, sappy, Mary-Sue autistic characters all the time. I imagine how it might be to be gay, or trans, or black or Hispanic in America and maybe you like the epic fantasy genre, but when you see yourself, it’s through this lens of how straight, white, cis guys see you.

So, this novel to me is five stars. It’s unusual in a genre that’s become staid and predictable. It’s about something. You could read it for fun, but it’s more than frivolous entertainment. And it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for most American fantasy readers to get outside our bubbles for a second.

Here’s a video version of this review.

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