"Who Fears Death" – a postapocalyptic fairy tale set in war-torn Sudan

The subject matter of this haunting tale is brutal, yet its words inspire hope.

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When I read that a critically acclaimed young adult and children’s book author had written a fantasy novel for adults set in war torn Sudan, I was not sure how the story would play out. Would it be "Harry Potter" meets "The Lion King" or something entirely unimaginable? Certainly, the pairing of genre and setting seemed about as likely as creating a chick lit novel set in North Korea’s work camps.

Not being a fan of traditional science fiction – or fantasy novels, as this story is categorized – I was a bit hesitant to begin reading. However, the use of a nontraditional location like Africa in postapocalyptic fiction and a female heroine piqued my interest. Perhaps it would be a fairy tale of sorts; the cover art features a girl with wings after all.

As a student of international relations, I have followed Sudan’s improbable march toward peace. Five years after the US brokered the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended 21 years of civil war, people are still dying in droves. Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Sudanese government appear to kill, maim, and rape indiscriminately. Additionally, the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, is charged with war crimes and genocide by The Hague. A happily-ever-after in Sudan’s future seems highly improbable.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa is a desolate land of scorching sun and wide stretching deserts. It is also the unlikeliest of settings for a story of hope and enchantment. Nnedi Okorafor’s novel "Who Fears Death" is a brutal coming-of-age story made palatable by lyrical writing, lush imagery, and the heartbreaking characterization of a young girl who carries the weight of the known world on her shoulders.

The daughter of an evil sorcerer, who is also the leader of the light-skinned Nuru tribe, Onyesonwu is Ewu – the mixed-race child purposely created by rape, neither oppressor nor the oppressed. Created for ostracization, as an Ewu Onyesonwu is the living embodiment of the Nuru’s contempt for the darker-skinned Okeke tribe.

In traditional fairy tales, there is usually an evil stepmother or maybe a witch indulging in jealousy, causing the protagonist misery relieved only by the help of a fairy godmother and the love of a handsome and dashing prince. In this case, Onyesonwu’s biological father, Daib, fits nicely into the role of the bad guy, using enchantment to stalk her in her dreams. Aro the mystic sage doesn’t grant wishes but he does mentor and push Onyesonwu toward her destiny, and then there is her prince, Mwita, Ewu like her, handsome, gifted with his own powers, and madly in love.

Onyesonwu's name prophetically means Who Fears Death. She lives in a postcatastrophic Sudan that is, unfortunately, not much different from the one we read about in the news today. There is still government-sanctioned genocide and and there are paramilitary units with missions to rape and create a new generation of misery, pain, and rage. But unlike today’s Sudan, where oil is the impetus for civil war and years of mass destruction and fighting, Onyesonwu lives in a world where the Nuru tribe is eliminating the Okeke, the black Africans of Sudan, simply because of their ethnicity.

The addition of magic to this story is the saving grace for a novel that reads like a horrific memoir of a young girl called to duty. If not for the magical realism that lifts this comdemnation of the sitting Sudanese government to fantasy literature strewn with juju and dueling sorcerers, I would have put the book down (especially when I reached the graphic female genital mutilation scene).

Despite the heavy nature of this novel’s content, "Who Fears Death" is a fast read. The writing is clear, the chapters short, and the action fast. It is a story that begs to be read in one sitting. And while the characters often deal with viciousness and apathy, there is authentic humor and humanity to lighten the darkness of the story.

I would call "Who Fears Death" a new kind of fairy tale – a story grounded in reality and embellished with magic, one that reads like a cautionary tale but with words designed to inspire hope. "Who Fears Death" is a haunting novel that will compel you to pay close attention to international news and really wonder what is being done to stop genocide – for genocide is the difficult subject of this novel. And you will fervently hope that one day someone much like Onyesonwu will come along to bring peace – and a happily-ever-after – to a land ravaged by hate.

Nikki Terpilowski is a freelance writer based in New York City. You can also find more of her thoughts and writings on books, travel, and food at awomanreading.

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