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Literature / Who Fears Death

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One day she would be able to shout her name.
Who Fears Death is a 2010 fantasy novel by Nnedi Okorafor which takes place in an alternate or After the End Sudan. Its heroine is Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu, a young woman who is an Ewu, the product of the rape of a woman of the Okeke tribe by a man of the Nuru tribe. Because of this she is shunned by the villagers in the town she grows up in, and haunted by the spirit of her biological father, a powerful sorcerer who wants her dead. However, Onyesonwu discovers that she has a talent for magic, especially shapeshifting, and under the tutelage of Mwita, a slightly older Ewu boy, and his master, the somewhat Jerkass Trickster Mentor Aro, she begins to cultivate her magical ability. However, Onyesonwu's father is still out there, and she has a special destiny ahead of her...

A prequel explaining The End of the World as We Know It, The Book of Phoenix was published in 2015.

This novel provides examples of:

  • After the End: The setting is implied to be this. There is technology, but it's mostly decayed and in disrepair. According to the Great Book, the Okeke created a great technological society, but were crushed when Ani woke up to discover what her creations had done and created the Nuru to punish them.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Ewu are treated this way, as because they are the product of violence, they are expected to become violent in their future.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Onyesonwu and Mwita, for being Ewu. Naturally, this is part of why they bond as strongly as they do.
  • The Apprentice: Mwita to Aro. Onyesonwu becomes an apprentice later as well, after considerable struggle.
  • Archnemesis Dad: As it turns out, the man who is trying to destroy Onyesonwu is her father, Daib.
  • Beautiful Singing Voice: Onyesonwu's singing voice is beautiful and, due her her magic, capable of attracting animals. It is noted that this unfortunately comes from her father, who also has a beautiful singing voice he used as he raped her mother.
  • Beige Prose: The writing style is very straightforward and to the point, using short and simple sentences to describe events. Possibly intentional, given the story is told from the perspective of a young woman in a post-apocalyptic setting.
  • Bigger on the Inside: The House of the Osugbo.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: More conception and death, but right after Mwita dies in Onyesonwu's arms, she deliberately makes herself conceive a child.
    • Onye's last act of magic before being arrested is to kill all the fertile men and impregnate all the fertile women.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Implied. Onyesonwu and Mwita have ties because her father was Mwita's master for a time, but they are not actually brother and sister.
  • Can't Have Sex, Ever: Or until marriage. The Eleventh Rite ceremony involves juju that makes it painful to have sex until marriage.
  • Characters Dropping Like Flies: By the end of the story, Onyesonwu, Mitwa, Luyu, and Binta are all dead. Diti and Fatasi abandon the journey specifically because they don't want to die, but it's unknown if they actually made it safely back to Jwahir.
  • Child by Rape: Onyesonwu.
  • Child Soldiers: Part of Mwita's background is that he was forced to be one.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Mwita and Onyesonwu bond through their shared experience as Ewu, and later also genuinely fall in love.
  • The Chosen One: Onyesonwu believes herself to be the Ewu sorceress who will end the war between Nuru and Okeke.
  • Continuity Nod: Onyesonwu finds a book about the Forbidden Greeny Jungle on Ginen, the setting of Zahrah the Windseeker and part of The Shadow Speaker.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The Eleventh Year Rite (aka female circumcision) is this both in and out of canon. Onyesonwu's mother is horrified when she discovers what her daughter has done (the practice having been banned in her home village), for instance, whereas it's common practice in Jwahir. Indeed, Onyesonwu subjected herself to it in order to fit in, and by doing so she gains a set of True Companions in Binta, Diti and Luyu.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A lighter-skinned tribe repressing a darker-skinned one through rape, murder, and enslavement? Even before it's revealed this takes place in Sudan, the parallels are fairly easy to see.
  • Fantastic Racism: Both the Okeke and the Nuru have this toward each other. We mostly see Nuru oppression of the Okeke (according to their mutual holy book, Okeke are supposed to be slaves to the Nuru, and Okeke rebellions have a tendency to result in decades-long slaughters by the Nuru), but at least part of the oppression Onyesonwu feels from the citizens of Jwahir is that she is technically a Nuru because her father was one. Mwita's backstory involves him barely escaping an Okeke massacre of his Nuru relatives.
  • Foreseeing My Death: During the test to learn the Mystic Points, you see your own death.
  • Framing Device: The story opens with Onyesonwu sitting in prison, waiting to be executed. During this wait, she tells the story of her life to a woman who is recording it for posterity.
  • Foregone Conclusion: An In-Universe example. The difference between someone who knows juju and a real sorcerer who works the four Mystic Points is passing an initiation where you face your own death. Most are not strong enough to do this.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Our True Companions.
    • Luyu is sanguine. The party girl of the group. A lot of fun, but impulsive and self-indulgent.
    • Onyesonwu is choleric. The leader of the group, but tends to be blinded by her passions. Hair. Trigger. Temper.
    • Binta is melancholic. Kind and reliable, she is also prone to withdrawing from people because of her family life.
    • Diti is phlegmatic. She is lazy, reactionary, and expects others to do things for her.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Onyesonwu. Not necessarily to people, though.
  • The Gods Must Be Lazy: According to the Great Book, the goddess Ani is this, having half-created the world (but not the sun), and then gone to sleep for centuries before finishing the job.
  • Good Bad Girl: Luyu loves having sex, with as many men as possible. But she's also the most fiercely loyal to Onyesonwu.
  • Good Parents: Onyesonwu's mother was actually an excellent mother, in spite of the pressures from the world to treat her Ewu child badly. Her stepfather also applies, especially for not only loving an Ewu child, but one that wasn't even his.
  • Good Powers, Bad People: Daib has a Beautiful Singing Voice and can attract wild animals in a Friend to All Living Things manner with it, just like his daughter. This doesn't stop him from being an utterly horrible person.
  • Heroic Bastard: Onyesonwu.
  • IKEA Erotica: A lot of the sex scenes come off as a little stiff, and uses the word "intercourse" to talk about the act.
  • In Love with Love: Diti and Fanasi's marriage was rocky from the start as neither of them really had an understanding of what being married actually meant.
  • In the Blood: Onyesonwu's spirited nature comes from all the women in her family. Her maternal grandmother was known as a free spirit, her paternal grandmother was born dada (with locked hair) despite being Nuru and was a radical free thinker, and her mother had quite a bit of magical potential of her own.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Apparently Onye and Mwita are guilty of this.
  • Jerkass: Most of the residents of Jwahir qualify for this, with their hatred of Ewu children and their passivity toward their fellow Okeke getting slaughtered by the Nuru. Aro starts out as possibly the most Jerk Ass resident of Jwahir, but after he accepts Onyesonwu as a student he shifts to being closer to being a Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
  • Living Legend: Onyesonwu gains quite the reputation as a sorceress before she travels very far from home.
  • Magical Negro: According to Prof. Okorafor (who wrote a short story and an essay about the Magical Negro trope), Sola is a deliberate inversion, being a Magical Caucasian.
  • Master-Apprentice Chain: Sola taught Daib who in turn taught Mwita.
  • Meaningful Name: Onyesonwu means "who fears death?" Her mother named her thus in the hope that her daughter would not.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: One of Onyesonwu's spells near the end of the story causes all women within a certain radius to become pregnant and all men within it to die.
  • Mind Rape: Onyesonwu finally gets fed up with the passivity of the citizens of Jwahir and literally does this to a crowd of them in the market square by forcing them to relive her mother's rape.
  • Mysterious Past: We don't know what happened to Daib to make him so evil. We never will.
  • Neo-Africa: Takes place in a post-apocalyptic Africa with various technological advances.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Onyesonwu delivers one to Aro when he refuses to train her for the third time.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: They're called Kponyungo, and are desert-dwelling creatures who occasionally befriend travelers in the desert.
  • Our Spirits Are Different: Masquerades, which are not to be confused with the Masquerade or Masquerade Ball. They are spirit creatures, and they will hurt you.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: They're called Eshu and can shift into the shape of any animal they have touched. Onyesonwu, for instance, likes to transform into a vulture from which she took a feather. The bird turned out to have been Aro in vulture form. They can also regrow any body part; e.g., when Onyesonwu regrows her clitoris.
  • Parental Incest: Binta was raped by her father, who claimed she was too beautiful not to.
  • Patricide: Onye's purpose in life is to kill her father. She only cripples him, physically and magically, however.
    • Before leaving the village with her friends, Binta poisons her father. She was happy to do it.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Mwita is on the heroes' side but has misogynistic views, often talking condescendingly to women or being frustrated that he isn't the leader due to being a man.
  • Pregnant Badass: Onyesonwu's mother Najeeba survived being pregnant and giving birth all by herself in the middle of the desert. A snake bit her and she just kept going.
    • Onyesonwu conceives a child and in the frame story she has been pregnant for three days.
  • Prophecy Twist: It is revealed that a Nuru seer has prophesied that a tall Nuru male sorcerer will come and change the Great Book to make life better for both Nuru and Okeke. It is revealed, however, that he changed the prophecy because he refused to believe what it actually said: that the prophesied messiah would be an Ewu sorceress.
    • Also Onyesonwu's fate: part of her initiation as a sorcerer is to confront her own death. But that doesn't mean she has to stay dead.
  • The Quest: Onyesonwu and Mwita set out to find and defeat Daib. Her friends all come along. Subverted in that it quickly becomes clear they have no idea what they're doing.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The party questing west to defeat Daib. Subverted in that traveling together drives them apart rather than pull them together.
  • Rape as Backstory: Onyesonwu's mother. Binta also reveals that her father raped her.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What happened to Onyesonwu's mother village.
  • Really Gets Around: Luyu had already had sex with several boys by her Eleventh Year Rite. This continues after the curse of the knife is lifted. One of the men she beds is Diti's husband Fanasi.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Binta dies on the journey west after having been a loyal friend to Onyesonwu the whole way.
  • Shout-Out: The Palm Wine Drinkard has been raised to the level of religious teaching.
  • Torn Apart by the Mob: This happens to Luyu.
  • True Companions: Onyesonwu, Luyu, Diti, and Binta become this thanks to all undergoing the Eleventh Year Rite together. Later on, they, along with Mwita and Diti's husband Fanasi decide to accompany Onyesonwu on her quest West. Somewhat subverted in that after a few weeks of walking in the desert they start getting on each other's nerves, especially Diti and Onyesonwu
    • Diti and Fanasi eventually ditch the others, deciding they don't want to risk their lives anymore.
  • Truth in Television: Female genital mutilation, as well as weaponized rape.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: He's the love of her life, but Mwita's major role in the story is to perform this role when Onyesonwu goes way overboard with her powers.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Mwita's had to be, in order to survive.