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A Dance for the Dead cover

A Dance for the Dead by Nuzo Onoh

(Stygian Sky Media, 2022)

Reviewed by Phil Nicholls

Nuzo Onoh’s A Dance for the Dead is a fascinating blend of horror and fantasy, with a strong set of engaging characters. The novel is set in an African village, home to the king of the nearby clans. Onoh makes great use of this setting, weaving together mythology and the rhythms of life in rural Africa. It is the intense rivalries of this close-knit community that fuel the dramatic plot.

Diké, eldest son of the King, is leader of the powerful Ogwummi warrior cult and the apple of the King’s eye. However, Diké’s younger brother, Ife Feather Feet, prefers dancing and palm wine to the responsibilities of adulthood. When the King asks Diké to kidnap Ife and push him into marriage, Ife arranges with the unpopular Emeka to kidnap Diké first and delay any threat of marriage.

However, Emeka has plans of his own and the two princes are thrust into greater danger than either of them had planned. With the help of vengeful ghosts and Emeka’s sister, Iruke Big-Bosom, both Diké and Ife end up on a magical quest to set right multiple wrongs, both current and historic. Onoh weaves together family drama, mythology and a fascinating setting. Powerful magic, a corrupt witch doctor and a host of restless spirits add a layer of horror with a strong fantasy flavour.

The fast-paced plot is filled with fascinating characters. The two princes carry the bulk of the story and enjoy a strong brotherly bond. As with any ensemble cast, it is the supporting characters who allow Onoh to showcase her skill at characterization. Male or female, from royalty to ordinary villagers, Onoh has filled the book with vivid, believable people.

A Dance for the Dead includes a useful glossary of Igbo terminology to help the reader follow what the characters say. However, with such a large cast, it would have been helpful if there was a similar list of names.

Onoh keeps the plot moving by regularly changing the narrative focus between both Diké and Ife, as well as her supporting characters. The events of A Dance for the Dead take place over a relatively short period of time, so there is space for Onoh to present multiple viewpoints without losing the urgency of the plot.

By switching narrative viewpoint, Onoh is able to present her characters in greater depth, as we spend more time understanding their motivations. She also writes dialogue using longer passages of speech, allowing the reader greater insight into the mind of her characters. This creates a sense of oratory by the characters as they make clear their feelings or opinions.

Onoh supports the engaging plot with powerful imagery. The village sacred grove, domain of the witch doctor, is the site of the more horrific elements of the story. This haunted glade is home to a host of vengeful ghosts and a portal to magical realms.

Yet for all the trappings of horror, A Dance for the Dead works equally strongly as an African-themed fantasy. Onoh’s choice of a non-European setting gives the book a freshness that many of the old tropes lack. The climactic magical quest at the end of the book created a suitable resolution for a plot where the stakes grew steadily through the book.

Of course, discussing the ending of a book is a fraught task in a review. Without spoiling the book, I can assure you that the final mythic quest is both more arduous and more satisfying than some cliched journey across a kingdom to retrieve a magic sword/crown/ring.

To wrap up the story, Onoh delivers a joyous denouement, an uplifting conclusion that wraps up the multiple character arcs and sets the world to rights. Of course, there are a few surprises here, but the ending is a rewarding finale to an enjoyable book.

Review from BSFA Review 22 - Download your copy here.


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