They say there is no water in the City of Lies. They say there are no heroes in the City of Lies. They say there are no friends beyond the City of Lies. But would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?
In the City of Lies, they cut out your tongue when you turn thirteen, to appease the terrifying Ajungo Empire and make sure it continues sending water. Tutu will be thirteen in three days, but his parched mother won’t last that long. So Tutu goes to his oba and makes a pact — she provides water for his mother, and in exchange he will travel out into the desert and bring back water for the city. Thus begins Tutu’s quest for the salvation of his mother, his city, and himself.
Tor.com’s greatest service to the SFF world has been the return of the novella. (OK, it’s greatest service has been Murderbot, but since all but one of Murderbot’s adventures have been novellas, I’m going to call them one and the same.) Arguably the true format of SFF since the 1920s, the novella does what the short story cannot, in terms of world-building and plot, while never losing focus — as so many doorstop fantasies do today.
The clever folks at Tor.com saw that and seized on it; and have also been good at bringing interesting new voices to market. With Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi, they’ve done both.
Book 1 of The Forever Desert: The Lies of the Ajungo
(Tor.com, March 21, 2023). Cover art by Alyssa Winans
In his afterword and acknowledgments Utomi, an American-born son of Nigerian immigrants, discusses that his upbringing always made him feel an outsider — almost a part of each world, but never quite. A self-avowed ‘nomad,’ a martial-artist and a student of folklore, he has brought this interesting and rich background together and in 84 pp (read that again: 84 pp; less pages than Daenerys Targaryen, ruminates on whether or not she should go back to Westeros in A Storm of Swords) creates an interesting new world in the Forever Desert.
The Lies of the Ajungo is a brilliant, African-inspired fantasy, with a narrative voice that is somewhere between contemporary, almost literary fiction, and fable. Yet the tale it tells — like many folktales and myths — is not for children. The Ajungo are a cruel empire, one that gives its aid to other cities in the dying world at unbelievably terrible prices: the maiming of every adult, and the erasure of the city’s name and records, so that it is just “The City of Lies” and its people, ever at the edge of dying of thirst, just “the People of Lies.”
Who the Ajungo are is unclear to the People — but they have lived under their distant yoke for generations and are too weak to fight. What lies out in the desert is also unclear, but what IS known is that any child who goes on the water-quest never returns. Tutu has no ambitions of heroism — such notions are crushed out of the People — but of course, in the same way Samwise the Strong was no hero, he is motivated by the greatest driving power of all: Love.
Book 2 of The Forever Desert: The Truth of the Aleke
(Tor.com, March 5, 2024). Cover art by Alyssa Winans
That is as close to Tolkien you’ll get in Lies, however. It is far closer to the Imaro sword & sorcery tales of the late Charles Saunders: both in its vision of Africa as a source ripe for fantasy, but also in its fast-paced, action-oriented narrative that focuses on an outsider, driven by family longing and a growing rage at the injustice he endures.
Tutu leaves the City a boy, in the year we follow him he will become a man, and perhaps something more. Utomi’s martial arts training serves him well in writing action scenes, he knows that in low fantasy magic is best left vague, chaotic, dangerous, and despite the shortness of the tale, he manages to introduce not one, but two surprises, neither of which are contrived, and both of which serve the narrative.
If thematically in the vein of Saunders, The Lies of the Ajungo is written with the poetic prose of Marlon James, and its final two pages elevate the story from the Heroic to the Mythic. It is truly a brilliant little work by a new talent to watch, and I will be intrigued to see what other stories of the Forever Desert we are invited to explore.