When I read Fantasy I generally stay on the High Fantasy side of the fence; Elves and Dragons and high-faluting magic are literary staples that I love to hate, cliches and all. The Sword and Sorcery category hasn’t really drawn my attention, until I saw the cover for Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. This was a book I wanted to read. As a subgenre of Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery fiction was first categorized in the 1950s, though the origins of it are in the 1930s and before, with titles like Conan the Barbarian. It is typified by a focus on a single male protagonist, fighting his way through obstacles both mundane and magical, often to regain his lost glory or to save the damsel in distress (my damsels save themselves, thank you very much). It wasn’t until the 1980s, with Charles Saunders’ Imaro series, that the category got its first Black male lead, arguably launching the Sword and Soul subgenre (though it wasn’t called that then). But now, well my friends NOW we live in a much better time, and Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is here to prove it.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is set in a mythical Africa-like continent, with a narrow range of greenlands and hills in the north that borders a sea, a wide desert that is criss-crossed with caravan trails, and then a span of trackless jungle filled with monsters that are only kept at bay by an an old, barely understood magical power. South and East of the jungle are the civilized lands, the center of which is the city of Old Olorum City, a reference I think to Old or Great Zimbabwe, the city of towers raised without mortar.
Into this comes Our Sorcerer Hero, Demane, and a crew of brothers protecting a caravan of merchants traveling from north to south on the road from Mother of Waters to Olorum City. When I say “a crew of brothers” I mean brothas, with given names like Cumalo and Walead, and earned nicknames like Teef (so called because of his teeth) and Messed Up, who earned his name, and much respect, by taking a sword to the face. The Captain of this mercenary band is Isa. Demane and Isa share many things, chiefly neither of them is exactly what they seem. They are both descendants of earlier races of demigods, most of whom are ascended into bodies of pure light. But they aren’t the same race, each has their own special skills and appearances that they use together for their own entertainment and the protection of the other brothers in the crew. The chemistry and interaction between Demane and Isa is so strong there were moments when I wondered if Demane was actually the sidekick in the heroic story of Isa: they trade the lead back and forth up until the very end.
The standout in this book is the juxtaposition between the narration and the dialog. Wilson’s narration is rich in the style of this genre — wordy and twisty in good ways (most of the time). For example:
[quote_simple]“Who minds, on the season’s very best day, the briars on the bushes of the rosegarden? No one, Captain. And what man given a treat — who’s gone without, who has a sweet tooth — even notices the bits of comb in your honey? No man, Captain.”[/quote_simple]
It is lovely, well timed, true in that romantic sort of way. Meanwhile, his dialog has a completely different tone. He takes as the pidgin of the crew a classic street-level Black American slang:
[quote_simple]“That was gold, my n****. Not fake, not fool’s, not dross: GOLD. N****, it was some official shit you just did…that, my nigga, was straight-up gold-plated LIKE SHIT.”[/quote_simple]
The switch is jarring at first in the surprisingness of it. Once it gets to flowing though, it really brings this story home. At times both of these narrative techniques — the elaborate descriptions and the code-switched slang — are overdone, leading to my mis-reading some passages and losing track of who was speaking. There are also instances of tense switching between the present and the past that make the action hard to follow. Really, that’s a minor critique for this book. The men in the crew all have a believable swagger, but as they are also risking their lives daily for a few gold coins, they have a vulnerability, a homesickness that ties them together and invites the reader in. These characters are Black people in a fantastic world full of Black people.
Actually, let me take that back: These are Black Men in a fantastic world full of Black People. There are in fact no women in the book who are given a name or a speaking part of note. That doesn’t bother me too much, I’d rather a novel not try to shove in a woman character just for the sake of it. There isn’t anything problematic from a feminist perspective here. All of the women that Demane speaks about or describes are treated as if they are full characters, not stereotypes. They just happen to all be off doing other things. So if you need your novels to pass the Bechdel Test, this one doesn’t. That does mean that the romance of the novel takes place between two men. Black Gay Male love doesn’t usually make it into fantasy novels, at least not fantasy novels that aren’t explicitly erotic/sexual in their writing. There isn’t any explicit sex in the novel, but the relationships are clearly there and they drive the character’s motivations in believable ways.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson follows in the footsteps of other Sword and Sorcery and Sword and Soul novels, while also strongly making its own way. The plot takes interesting, unexpected turns with subtlety and skill that pulled me into Demane’s adventure. This book is easy to read and easy to recommend.