In the 1970s, black fantasist Octavia Butler named the central protagonist in her “Patternist” series after an Igbo goddess. Back then, a publishing industry resistant to non-white characters (and writers) in genre fiction would never have predicted that, today, an American daughter of Igbo immigrants would publish critically acclaimed speculative fiction using Igbo elements and philosophical borrowings from the folklore of Central Asia, India, and the Middle East.
Superficially, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is built around fantasy literature’s most popular cliché: the mysterious, predestined child messiah. She pushes that cliché into psychologically (and physiologically) messier territory. The result of rape, a girl wizard named Onyesonwu hopes to murder the racist warlord who sired her. Unlike Harry Potter, Onye’s style of magic is Nomadic Shaman, not Medieval Mage. So not only does the novel read more like Carlos Castaneda than J.K. Rowling when describing Onye’s magical apprenticeship, this angry young sorceress validates every patriarchal fear of powerful women. In the process of constructing this unabashedly neofeminist fable, Okorafor critiques Africa’s endemic poverty, gender prejudices, female circumcision, and the twin plagues of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.
It’s an ambitious agenda for a single book, particularly since Okorafor also reworked the prose style of her award-winning teen fiction to better suit this, her first adult novel. But with few exceptions, it all comes together beautifully. Her pacing is tight. Her expository sections sing like poetry. Descriptions of paranormal people and battles are disturbingly vivid and palpable. But most crucial to the book’s success is how the author slowly transforms Onye’s pursuit of her rapist father from a personal vendetta to a struggle to transform the social systems that created him. SF and fantasy already claim many classic tales that are thinly veiled allegories of the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, even China’s “cultural revolution.” So little wonder that Okorafor appropriated the narrative strategies and loopholes of speculative fiction to tell a cautionary tale inspired by the more recent political horrors of Biafra, Rwanda, and Darfur.