Who Fears Death/The Book Of Phoenix

Nnedi Okorafor
DAW Books

Both of these books changed my life. I have never read anything like them. Each is a female-centric story that has a magic and mysticism that sweeps you into their worlds. Who Fears Death and The Book of Phoenix are firmly rooted in African culture, which is something that never happens in science fiction. Black women are rarely the leads in this genre, but in Nnedi Okorafor’s books, she celebrates their heritage and their femininity. All while writing beautifully rich Afrocentric tales that make a stark white sci-fi landscape a little more colorful.

As a black woman and a major fan of the science fiction genre, I am often disappointed in the lack of diversity and representation in some of my favorite books. It was almost as if the future was devoid of people of color. It was not until I found Octavia Butler that I realized that there are black women out there writing stories that I could see myself in.

Then I discovered Nnedi Okorafor’s books and immediately fell in love, but it was when I read Who Fears Death that my whole perception of what science fiction could be, changed.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is a book I had to read twice. Within the first read, I was so engrossed with the story of Onyesonwu and Okorafor’s fantastic tale that I breezed through the 386 page novel in a day and a half. I only stopped for bathroom breaks and nibbled on crackers to fuel my frantic reading.

Who Fears Death Book Cover

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Cover art by Elizabeth Glover

Who Fears Death is not a book for children, as it deals with adult topics including rape, genocide, racism, female circumcision, and sex. However, with that comes magic and a female-centric story that celebrates the beauty of African culture and mythos. The story takes place in dystopian future Sudan, where genocide plagues the landscape.

In the book, there are two races of people. The ruling class, the Nuru, who have caramel skin and long black flowing hair, who feel they are superior to the Okeke people. Dark skinned with coarse hair, the Okeke are often slaves of the Nuru. The Nuru are on the warpath to eradicate all of the Okeke people, because of a religious text called The Great Book.

Who Fears Death focuses on the life of Onyesonwu, an outsider, and an Ewu child born to an Okeke woman. Ewu children are children born from violence when a Nuru man rapes an Okeke woman. These women and their children are often social pariahs. Because of their strange looks, Ewu children are targets, their peers believing that violence begets violence. Ewu’s have coarse white hair, the skin the color of sand, and freckles splashed across their faces.

Onyesonwu, whose name in Igbo means “Who Fears Death” is a precocious child who is often at odds with her past and her future. One day when Onyesonwu is out in her mother’s garden, she picks up a sparrow’s feather and morphs into the bird. It is the beginning of her powers awakening and her journey.

I do not want to go deep into the plot for risk for ruining the story. But Nnedi Okorafor brings a whimsical air to this book. Even in the darkest moments of Who Fears Death you still feel the artful whimsy she is portraying in the tale.

However, I do warn that this book is not for the faint of heart, the rape scene that is Onyesonwu’s conception is something replayed over and over in the book in graphic detail. For it is an important, and pivotal moment in the novel. It can be a bit overwhelming when reading it. I know when the second and third telling of her mother’s tale happened I cringed. Okorafor does not shy away from the brutality of war and how that influences violence toward women. Rape is always a hard subject to talk about and to read about, but I believe Okorafor approached this topic with sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

The story at times can seem slow. Onyesonwu’s day to day life tends to feel dragged out. Often in the story especially later in the book when they are traveling in the desert it can feel especially drawn out in between bouts of action. In these slow moments there is excellent character development, which I felt made up for what some could perceive as a dip in pacing. Overall this book is a fantastic piece of art that draws you in and makes you care about each character and what happens to them.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
Cover art by G-Force Design

[pullquote]There is a long history of the government using and exploiting black bodies for government research”[/pullquote]The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death, taking place hundreds of years before. It is in a future version of America where Phoenix, a genetically grown woman, who on the outside looks to be in her forties but in reality has only been alive for two years, is a test subject in Tower Two. Tower Two is one of seven towers across the world that are owned by a company that test on and house primarily people of color, to further their scientific research.

There is a long history of the government using and exploiting black bodies for “research.” All you have to do is google “Henrietta Lacks,” or “The Tuskegee Experiment” to find:

“An infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service. The purpose of this study was to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama under the guise of receiving free health care from the United States government.”

“The study was continued without informing the men they would never be treated. None of the men infected were ever told they had the disease, and none were treated with penicillin even after the antibiotic became proven for the treatment of syphilis.”

The Tuskegee Experiment

U.S. Public Health Service Certificate in Recognition of 25 Years
RG 442
Records of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Series: Tuskegee Syphilis Study Administrative Records, 1930-1980

Okorafor takes the history of black bodies being experimented on and turns it into an insightful tale of woe and freedom. She gives back the power to the victims. Phoenix’s goal in the novel is to end the atrocities that are happening to her people.
Phoenix’s powers fit her name. She burns incredibly hot and burns whatever gets too close. She escapes her captivity and learns first hand about the harshness of the world she enters. There are Angels, men who can walk through walls, and men who eat glass. It is a fantastic tale that surprised me by the end, with the way it ties into Who Fears Death.

[pullquote]”She is a hero and at times can act selfish and petulant. The humanizing of Onyesonwu made me like her more.”[/pullquote]I love both books because of the strong black female characters that carry both novels. Like, Onyesonwu’s mother has resilience and strength, even when she loses her voice—literally and figuratively. Onyesonwu is the heart of Who Fears Death. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time. She is a hero and at times can act selfish and petulant. The humanizing of Onyesonwu made me like her more. She is like every young adult trying to wrangle her feelings and the primary responsibility that’s on her shoulders.

The same goes with Phoenix in The Book of Phoenix; she is constantly at odds with what she is and her actions, never quite sure if she is the villain or hero of her story. That kind of honesty both characters carry when they look at their actions is something I rarely see in fiction. Usually, the hero’s actions are always noble and they never second guess themselves. It is refreshing to see that in these novels.

Okorafor also shows something else I rarely see in science fiction books: Black female friendship, and these women openly talking about sexual freedom, and gender roles. Who Fears Death at its core is a celebration of black female friendships and the power of those relationships.  At one point in the book Onyesonwu, at 17, has to leave her family and village behind. With her, she takes her three best friends Binta, Luyu, and Diti. The three go through the ups and downs of this journey. Often with fallouts, and dealing with death.

Both The Book of Phoenix and Who Fears Death are filled with magic, heartbreak, and are steeped in African folklore. They are unlike anything I have read before. Who Fears Death brings you into Onyesonwu’s world, the magic, the violence, the old traditions; while The Book of Phoenix reflects on the dangers of repeating the past. Nnedi Okorafor weaves all these subjects in these novels together magically; making theses Afrofuturstic novels instant science fiction classics.