So I’m doing this thing and it was hard to figure out what book I wanted to review for this. I put all this phantom pressure on myself find something new and interesting or a lesser known author or novel to do, but that felt like trying to hard and being too cute. Then I thought more carefully about why I wanted to be a part of this More Diverse Universe tour to begin with and it became clear.
Due to a variety of factors of my childhood I feel in love with action books. I liked the idea of a mostly singular hero who kind of obliterated everything in their path. I didn’t really do fantasy books for most of my youth. They were dumb, wizards are stupid, all the different races were dumb, and all the humans were white. That wasn’t a real conscious decision I made at the time (though it is now), but there was always something to having someone specifically described to look like you (or how you would hope to grow up in your power fantasy) that was full on badass. So it wasn’t that I said out loud “I’m not reading those books because no one looks like me” it was more that with action/thriller/suspense/crime/mystery books people did look and talk and act like me to some degree and I would keep going back for more.
The one exception was anything Robert E. Howard had his hand in. Thematically, I found Conan and Kull’s adventures to fit in with my favorite video games which consisted of running right and hitting stuff. It was simple and effective. There was not fluff to it. No time for overly complicated plots or massive worlds. Just hero – enemy – adventure to enemy – kill enemy. It’s pretty good.
Then one fateful day I am just blobbing along the library and was cover hunting until I ran into this:
There was no way I wasn’t going to read this. Look at it! There’s a big Black dude about to be stabbing a lizard monster thing. I’m in. (Note: This book was in the African-American fiction section, which I’m grateful for because that’s the only thing that probably saved it from the Library tossing it years earlier. But seriously Greensburg library. Go jump in a hole.
Then I open the book and instantly am struck with how different it was from Conan and Kull and the world of Robert E. Howard. I didn’t realize how old Howard’s stories were because how would I know? But the world that Charles Saunders created wasn’t just different because there were black people and it was in a fictionalized fantasy Africa, it was different because it was written with a style and authority that Howard never reached for.
Where Howard’s books sought to exotify everything (seriously, everything was written to be exotic to his all white 1930s readers) these stories by Saunders were written to make this fantasy Africa full of verisimilitude. (I wish there was a less academic word for that). The world was bright and vibrant and whole. The magic used by the Wizards felt wholly real to the world. Since it wasn’t trying to push how weird it was, it allowed you to absorb this setting more thoroughly.
The book itself is exquisitely written. It holds up spectacularly. It’s been a joy to go back through this past week. The story follows Imaro, a lone warrior who is ostracized by his tribe. The result of this life makes him stronger and tougher through his childhood until he has his coming of age. From there the story rockets off in spectacular fashion as he runs into a variety of different groups of peoples and spirits. Imaro as a character is someone you can easily follow. He doesn’t always make the right decisions, but the decisions he makes (which are appropriately quick and well reasoned) leave you satisfied. There’s no point in the first novel where you have to put the book down to figure out why he did something.
That isn’t to say that the story is shallow, but there’s a clarity of focus with both the character and the story that keeps the pace moving and motivations clear. It’s a very good example of what I like most about fantasy (and stories in general). I’m not a fan of convoluted for the sake of convolutions. I don’t feel like everything needs to be epic. I don’t feel like everything needs to be so dark and I don’t need to feel like my main character can die at any time for me to feel tension.
Charles Saunders does a stand up job at creating tension, mystery, and other buzz wordy emotional responses without getting too dour or going for that forced emotional manipulation stuff. Imaro is constantly challenged by a variety of foes clearly intended to bring out different aspects of his personality and teach him new lessons as he moves on in his adventure, and without fail he meets all of these challenges and succeeds in a remarkable way. There is something truly awesome about knowing your hero is going to manage to get out of this incredible perilous situation but not knowing either what it will cost or how he will do it.
That’s just part of it. The setting is magnificent. The first time I read this book I had never been exposed to anything like it. Any other books that mention Africa or a clearly Africa inspired section was mummery (usually done up in literary black face). In Imaro we are able to explore a ficionalized Africa that is as diverse as real Africa. The books makes excellent use of the fact that the continent is large and that sort of difference creates space for people to lead wildly different lives. There are the typically nomadic tribes as well as stationary cities. There are plains and grass lands and mountains and deserts and none of them feel stagnant. Saunders fully explores the different life styles of all of these people in these short bursts, and each person or group of people we meet fills the world out a little more. They’re not just set pieces either, you run into the different tribes or members from them here and there without it feeling too coincidental. The Sorcerers of all these different places are geologically appropriate as well. It’s just a nice touch.
Charles Saunders’ Imaro is a book I can’t recommend highly enough. It still holds up to this day and the sequals he’s done more recently are good as well, and expand the universe in fun ways. He also has written a series of Sword and Sorcery books with a female protagonist, Dossouye, that I would highly recommend.
Imaro got railroaded by stupid publishing mistakes and a moderate dose of good old fashioned America racism for 20+ years (Imaro was initially published in 1981 and didn’t make a return until 2006) and it’s good to see Saunders in the Fantasy writing game again. Not just that, but there’s a whole group of black writers doing Sword and Sorcery titles (they’re calling the genre Sword and Soul) and it really excites my little heart that they’re alive and that it seems to be working for them financially enough to keep doing it.
If you made it this far you deserve a cookie. Or just how about this badass cover