Sunday 16 September 2012

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death is a novel set in Africa. In fact, it is a fantasy / science fiction novel set in a postapocalyptic Africa, but to be honest, this only became clear to me very late in the novel.

Our heroine, Onyesonwu, is an "Ewu", a mixed race girl, born as a result of a rape. Permanently an outsider, she is passionate, stubborn, quick to anger, and, it turns out, adept at using magic / juju. She is determined to learn magic and change the world.

The world, meanwhile, is a desert, populated by two tribes / races: Nurus and Okekes. Nurus rule, Okekes are slaves. There's been an uprising by Okekes before Onye was born. Now there is a slow-moving genocide (Nurus killing Okekes), ongoing since before Onye's birth, and continuing, brutally.

There is a lot of stuff in this novel that makes the reader think, and which offers itself for debate and discussion. Much of its core is about the relationship between a group of young people. The novel clearly has a lot to say about women and sex and gender politics. The shifting relationships between our questing youths (four girls, two guys), and the importance of sex, are as much part of the novel as magic and genocide.

Who Fears Death is not a young adult novel (based on the cartoonish cover, and having read only a YA novel by Nnedi Okorafor previously, I had the wrong expectations). It is a novel that feels authentically African (which is an achievement, as the author was born and lives in America). The way the story handles tribes, beliefs in juju / magic, and the strange way in which life can go on while civil war and genocide are also occurring, in close proximity - it all feels authentic, incredibly, depressing and uncanny. We witness female genital mutilation, angry, hateful mobs, weaponised rape, tribalism, execution by stoning to death, incest - at times, this novel feels like a highlights reel of the worst and ugliest sides of Africa (and families in general).

I realise that it is meant to be a novel of hope, of sorts, with a hero who does not readily accept being an outcast for her race, or being seen as a lesser person because of her sex, and who goes on to try to change things. But to me, it was a very hard novel to read. The realistic elements are brutal. The fact that the novel uses magic and prophecy as an agent of change leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. It makes me feel that there is no real hope for Africa at all, and dreaming of a magic solution is the only dream that Africa has left. Along the way, we even briefly encounter an almost utopian society in a dream-like sequence, which is founded entirely upon magic. All the reality in this book is grim, all the hope is carried in its magic.

Who Fears Death is an original novel - who else writes science fiction about Africa? It is also an effective novel, putting some of the brutality that I try not to think about into my life by embedding it in a book I chose for leisure reading. But it is not a book that makes me hopeful, or that gives me any happiness. It made me realise how my image of Africa is already postapocalyptic / dystopian - if it takes me until 80% of a book have passed before I understand that this is meant to be a post-climate-change, post-technological-collapse future, then that tells me something. It tells me I am ignorant, but it also tells me that Africa must be a grim and terrible place, to be so indistinguishable from postapocalyptic dystopias to the ignorant. Most of all, the book tells me that there is no hope for some parts of Africa ever to develop, to become something less brutal, less oppressive, more humane: even in science fiction, it takes god-like magic, and god-like prophets and messiahs for anything to change. To me, Who Fears Death is terrifying and grim.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday 2 September 2012

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Alif the Unseen is a book unlike any other I've ever read. It is the story of Alif, an internet service provider / hacker, living in an unspecified City, in an unspecified Emirate, somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.

To begin with, it's just a tale of nerd-has-girl-trouble: his girlfriend is leaving him to marry another man. She tells him she never wants to see him again, never wants to hear from him again. In a fit of angry despair, Alif decides to make her wish come true, and write a programme which can identify her, no matter which computer in the world she uses, and make his own email address, web handles, avatars, phone numbers etc. forever invisible and unreachable for her. Only after some manic coding does he realise that this programme in the wrong hands could be a terrible weapon against any activists.

Soon, things get a little out of hand. Before we know it, the story involves an ancient mythical manuscript, people who seem supernatural (djinn!) and sinister state security forces / persecution.

If you took Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, jumbled it up with The Arabian Nights, injected a little bit of Zoe Ferraris's Kingdom Of Strangers' Middle Eastern atmosphere and setting, sprinkled in a dusting of Islam, and turned it all into a beautifully written novel set in the Arab Spring, then the outcome would be this. It is not a mixture I would ever have thought of. It's thrilling, original, fresh and new. Even the Arab Spring is handled with elegance, deftness and complexity. (I would almost compare it to Ian MacDonald's The Dervish House, but the prose in Alif the Unseen is much lighter and more accessible - it creates a similarly rich atmosphere, but relying less on a barrage of alien vocabulary)

The book is not flawless. For this particular reader, there is something uncomfortable about the way Islam is infused in the mix, especially in the later parts, and how faith in Islam is promoted. I'm never going to enjoy a book where anything is driven away by the power of Faith / God, Islamic or otherwise, but that aside, it's not really fun to detect an author's pet subject / propaganda sneaking into a novel that's otherwise an adventure story.

That aside, buy this book! It's hard to beat in terms of entertainment value: beautifully written, no hint of purple prose, thrilling, and full of the magic of Arabian Nights and the techy dazzle of teh interwebs, in an exotic combination you've never encountered before. A stunning debut novel, brilliant despite a small handful of preachy moments, and unusually current and topical.

Rating: 4.5/5

For another great review of this book, see Sheenagh Pugh's review of Alif the Unseen.