Following the extraordinarily dark How the Dead Live, I had planned to immediately start the next volume of A Dance to the Music of Time. I found, however, that I needed a break, some light relief, something where I wouldn’t be thinking about the nature of existence and what it means to be human. I chose Imaro, by a narrow margin, it came very close to being an Edgar Rice Burroughs Pellucidar novel instead…
Imaro is a sword and sorcery novel by African-American writer Charles R. Saunders. Written firmly in the tradition started by Robert E. Howard, it is a deliberate attempt to write a hero that an African-American reader can relate to, to create a Black Conan.
Originally published in 1981, Imaro was in part a response to Saunders’ perception that fantasy literature overwhelmingly featured white protagonists and marginalised black characters. As an African-American man, Saunders struggled to entirely relate to the characters in the books he was reading, and was unhappy with the often racist depictions of Africans. In his foreword to the current 2006 edition he states that he thinks matters have improved, making him a more optimistic man on that front than I am. In 2005 after all, the sci fi channel broadcast an adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard from Earthsea featuring an entirely white cast. That book, for those unfamiliar with it, contains no white characters at all – a deliberate decision by Le Guin who wrote it in part to address the exclusion of non-whites from fantasy fiction.
But enough of politics, or almost so. The other interesting aspect of Imaro, beyond the text itself, is that the 2006 edition is heavily revised from the original 1981 edition. An entire story is in fact omitted, replaced with a wholly new story. Imaro inhabits an Africa-analogue called Nyumbani, essentially our Africa but with countries and peoples renamed to give Saunders a little more creative freedom. The 1981 edition contained a key story, including the origin of a central character, set in a kingdom modelled on Rwanda and featuring a genocidal conflict between the two tribes inhabiting it. Later events turned the story, from Saunder’s perspective, into a mockery of real-world horror and as such although he was keen to see Imaro reissued, he was not keen for that story to be reissued. His answer was a new tale, and consequential revisions. How they compare to the original I can’t say, but I do think it interesting how history caused Saunders to have to rewrite so much material.
Anyway, on to Imaro. Imaro is the child of a woman of the Ilyassai, essentially the Masai. His father is of another tribe, making him an outcast within his people, tolerated and raised within their customs but never liked. He grows, as sword and sorcery heroes do, to be a young man of extraordinary ability, huge strength and quick wit. But, he has enemies, and this novel which is rather a series of connected short stories tracks his time with the Ilyassai and his later adventures across Nyumbani as he seeks his destiny.
Saunders has a real love and knowledge of African folklore and customs, he introduces the ways of the Ilyassai smoothly and makes them understandable if not always wholly sympathetic. Other cultures, forest dwelling tribes dependent on fishing, bandit kingdoms, urbanised coastal nation states, are all also brought to life and Saunders creates an Africa that is a vibrant and diverse place. A land of many cultures, often mutually incomprehending, but each credible and seeming-authentic (I don’t know enough about Africa to say how genuinely authentic).
As the book progresses, Saunders works in words in the tongue of the Ilyassai, names for animals, coming-of-age rituals, weapons, and then going forward those words are often used without further explanation so that as you proceed the reader becomes himself a little Africanised – helping achieve the immersion so important to this kind of novel.
Freedom. The concept held little meaning for Imaro, except during times such as this, when he ran alone in the Tambure, dry grass swishing against his bare legs. It was then that he felt that he truly belonged in the savanna, at one with the vast herds of impala, zebra, kudu, gazelle, and countless other hoofed creatures that along with tembo, the mighty elephant, roamed wherever their will guided them. Even more did the youth identify with the Tamburure’s deadliest predators: Ngatun the lion, Chui the leopard, Matisho the hunting-hyena. These creatures hunted the grass-eaters as it pleased them, without regard to the strictures imposed by clan or tribe.
Saunders also explains, but without heavy exposition, the reason for certain customs, for example the Ilyassai believe that when an Ilyassai dies his soul enters the body of a lion, when a young man comes of age he must slay a lion to prove his courage, and in so doing release that soul so it can again reincarnate into the body of an Ilyassai. Fascinating stuff. The book is full of small descriptive details that add to the richness of his setting.
Imaro knew he was in the Land of No One, a wild uninhabited stretch of territory that served as a borderland between the realms claimed by the Turkhana and the Ilyassai. It was not uninhabited now. A band of Turkana had set up a small encampment, consisting of a fresh-dug firepit and a circular barrier of spiky thornbrush. It was the encampment of a hunting party or a war band, quickly erected and easy to dismantle.
As well as all this culture and myth, Saunders draws as so many sword and sorcery writers do on HP Lovecraft. Evil sorcerors in Nyumbani use mchawi, witchcraft, but those who grow too devoted to it change and become something no longer wholly human. Mchawi grants power, but at a terrible cost. Mchawi is also, of course, found in ancient ruins of uncertain origin and in peculiar and monstrous survivors of an earlier age – beings alien to humanity and the natural world.
Ages ago, the misshapen pile of crumbling masonry was a building, an edifice of colossal proportions. The gigantic stone blocks from which it had been constructed once fit together with immaculate precision. But that time was thousands of rains ago, as humans measure time. Now, the structure was only a mound of aging stone, futilely defying the passage of the rains even as the name of its long-dead builders had long since been forgotten. It hulked in the midst of the Tamburure like a monument to a time so distant that even the land surrounding it had changed.
The builders of the Place of Stones were short, squat, manlike in shape … and thoroughly nightmarish. Narrow, elongated eyes glittered balefully in the green light suffusing the ruin. Bestial fangs filled their gaping mouths. Colorless hair sprouted in thin patches across scabrous, unclothed skin. Cat-like claws curved from the fingers of hands otherwise human in form.
Saunders avoids, however, the bleakness of Lovecraft’s vision. Here those who are the source of mchawi, mysterious entities not encountered in this book, are opposed by other entities which may be beneficient. In one of the book’s more interesting elements, it is clearly implied that Imaro himself is a form of weapon, designed by the beneficient entities to fight their enemies. That he himself may not be wholly human, but something more crafted to inflict harm on those who would harm humanity.
Saunders’ prose style is straightforward and efficient, this is a work driven by its plot and its ideas, and Saunders is largely happy simply to communicate both. Generally, he avoids falling into Howardian pastiche, though on several occasions he refers to Imaro’s mighty thews, which jars every time he does it for obvious reasons (obvious to those with any knowledge of the genre anyway, if not I’m happy to explain in the comments). The Night Shade imprint is easy to read and attractively bound, though on occasion there were unfortunate typos and the odd missing or plainly incorrect word.
Imaro hurdled the flaming thornbush, and drove his blade into the throat of the war-leader. As blood spewed from the Turkhana’s neck, the iron hand of panic crushed the courage from the rest of the warriors. To their terror-stricken minds, Imaro was a ghost returned for vengeance, for they could not believe that a bound man or boy could have survived the Tamburure at night. Shrieking prayers to their gods or ancestors, the Tamburure broke and fled. And Imaro ravened among them like Ngatun himself.
Note the second use of the word Tamburure there is an error, it should be Turkhana as it is the people who are fleeing, not the savanna. Still, in the main Night Shade have done a pretty fair job here.
There is a difficulty with Imaro, however, one that is one intrinsic to its genre. Imaro himself is stronger than any other man, a better warrior, he is cleverer and more charismatic, he’s not even bad looking. That’s ok, the uber-protagonst is common in this genre and there does at least seem to be an in-setting reason why he’s so special, but it does rather reduce tension. Imaro, put simply, is a winner and although he is on a few occasions beaten into unconsciousness it’s perfectly obvious that by the end of each story he’ll have gutted everyone responsible. As I say, that’s probably unavoidable given the nature of the genre, but it does mean you sort of know what’s going to happen most of the time.
Imaro’s world is also not a subtle one. Bad guys tend to be very, very bad. Good guys aren’t good as such, but rather are men who stick to their word or who don’t betray friends (genuinely good characters would be out of genre) and those who fall into that camp stay in it, though as is generally the case with companions to sword and sorcery heroes the more sympathetic characters don’t tend to have a high survival rate. It is a world painted with a broad brush, proud warriors, evil sorcerors, beautiful women trained in strange erotic arts, wise old women, peaceful fisher-people, strange idols and hideous demon-things (really, what’s not to love?).
But, and it’s the key but, it’s a lot of fun. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not going to change your perceptions of the genre, but it’s good solid sword and sorcery set in an Africa-analogue rather than a mock-Europe and with a nice level of cultural detail. If you already enjoy this sort of fiction, this is well worth checking out, if you don’t this isn’t the one that will change your mind. I enjoyed it though, and I intend to read the next in the series, where Imaro goes in search of the ancient kingdom of Cush…