IMARO: The Naama War by Charles Saunders

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 | Posted by Howard Andrew Jones and John ONeill

naama-warBack when Black Gate‘s editor John O’Neill lived in Ottawa in the early 80s, he was a member of a small SF fan club.  His first meeting featured a reading from the editor of an excellent local fanzine, Stardock, who had just completed his first novel.  The author was Charles Saunders, the novel was Imaro, and the reading he never forgot.

DAW released the first three Imaro novels between 1981 and 1985, then dropped the series for reasons arising from textbook bad marketing decisions, a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate over a poorly chosen cover quote (“The Epic Novel of a Black Tarzan”), and publishing delays.

For the whole sordid tale, read Charles de Lint’s introduction to the Night Shade edition of the first novel.

Night Shade books released the first two books, Imaro and The Quest for Cush, in handsome new editions in 2006 & 2007, and Saunders self-published the third volume, The Trail of Bohu, through his Sword & Soul Media press last year.

The true tragedy of the saga of Imaro is that the fourth novel has never been published – until now.

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Fiction Review: Imaro 2: The Quest For Cush by Charles Saunders

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 | Posted by Web Master

A Review by Ryan Harvey

Copyright 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights reserved.

Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush
by Charles Saunders
Night Shade Books (214 pages, May 2007, $14.95)

Let’s put the lie to a hackneyed advertising slogan: you do get a second chance to make a first impression. Imaro offers the proof. Charles Saunders’s sword-and-sorcery hero didn’t make a good first impression in paperback publishing during his inaugural go-round in the early 1980s. DAW Books released Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush in 1984 to follow up the groundbreaking-but modest-selling Imaro. The sequel suffered the same mistaken marketing fate as its predecessor. Saunders also admitted that he delayed too long completing the second book; when it finally reached the bookstore shelves, the first book had already faded from view. Thus did the original Black sword-and-sorcery hero receive an undeservedly abbreviated early life.

But Night Shade Books has rescued Imaro from used paperback limbo-and these reprinted and revised volumes have finally given Imaro the chance to make a real impression on legions of readers who haven’t had the opportunity to encounter Saunders’s fierce Ilyassai warrior or his marvelously realized fantasy version of Africa, Nyumbani. For connoisseurs of classic sword-and-sorcery without excuses, irony, or parody, the new printing of Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush, is a bloody sumptuous feast filled with hunks of juicy, red meat.

The Night Shade edition has not only brought Imaro back to stride the savannahs and entertain readers old and new, it also offers Saunders a chance to re-tool and add to the saga. A new bridging chapter included in Imaro, explaining how the hero lost both his love Tanisha and his bandit army the haramia, pushed the original concluding chapter to the beginning of the sequel. The revised Imaro 2 now starts with our hero alone, pursuing Tanisha and her kidnapper into the jungle. It is surprising that Saunders didn’t originally realize how more organic this opening feels and how it benefits the rest of the book. Imaro now starts as a fully-formed, independent warrior, and the rest of the episodic novel follows his development as he encounters love, companionship, city life, and the piecemeal unveiling of his role in the battle between white and black magic.

Imaro 2 is superior to the first novel not only in its more cohesive feel, but also its variety. With Imaro’s youthful origin out of the way, Saunders can launch his hero across the polyglot breadth of Nyumbani: swamps, jungles, seas, cities. The urban setting of much of story establishes a different tone, as does Imaro’s new partner, the cerebral and quick-tongued Pomphis, whose own quest in service of the monarch of Cush ties in with Imaro’s struggle against the magic of the Mashataan that has plagued him since is youth. Gladiatorial combats, Asian martial artists, killer fish-people, enslaved men made of half-stone, monsters in bogs, magically enthralled villages, and degenerate sorcerers by the half dozen… Saunders has a caravan full of excitements to offer.

The newly-relocated opening has the most standard sword-and-sorcery elements of the saga. Imaro is often facilely equated to Conan and Tarzan, but in this adventure the comparison feels apt: a hero traversing a jungle (and who immediately kills a murderous panther) searches for his kidnapped women, and then finds his way to a lost city filled with sorcerers of a moribund race who plan to sacrifice his love to prolong their lives. With the help of a clever trickster, our hero fights to save the damsel in distress. Plus there’s a statue that comes to life. It’s a Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rich Burroughs head-on collision!

It isn’t the most original opening for a sword-and-sorcery novel, but it works regardless, partially because of Saunders’ masterful pacing and scene-setting, and partially the way the author addresses the years of racism endemic in early fantasy and adventure stories with a villainous white culture, the Mizungus. The Mizungus call themselves Atlanteans, and Saunders hints about a Greco-Roman inspiration. The Mizungus view the people of Nyumbani as nothing more than beasts fit for slave labor, and their derogatory name for Blacks, na-gah, has an ugly but purposeful contemporary resonance. This time, it’s their racist way of life that is dying out, and a Black hero has come to bolt down the sarcophagus lid. Saunders’ polemics appear obvious, but they do not interfere with the excitement of the tale and add an intriguing slant to familiar material.

At the conclusion of the first section, Saunders has gathered together the central cast — Imaro, his luscious and stalwart lover Tanisha, and Pomphis of the Bambuti pygmy race — and the quest of the title begins. The thrills get even better from here on. The long adventure brings Imaro into a city for the first time, then in contact with another bizarre hidden civilization, followed by a deadly sea voyage, and at last entry into the greatest kingdom in Nyumbani to learn more about his destiny in the war to maintain chephet, the balance between light and dark magic.

The only misstep that Saunders makes is in Chapter III, “Bana Gui,” which feels disconnected from the greater story arc. The repetition of ideas with its ‘cursed lost civilization’ draws unfortunate attention to itself, and the action resolves itself too quickly. Following immediately after the long urban adventure of Chapter II, “Mwenni,” which contains some of the best work in Imaro’s saga, “Bana Gui” comes as a mild disappointment.

Unfortunately, some of the printing flaws evident in Night Shade’s Imaro continue in Imaro 2; the typesetting and proofreading errors are fewer, but one of them unfortunately appears in a chapter title. Chapter I is titled “Mji ya Wzimu,” even though the text and Saunders’s introduction make it clear the title should be “Mji ya Wazimu.” That’s the small price we pay for the small presses, alas. But it’s chuffin’ awesome to have Imaro back, and it makes me feel great to be a sword-and-sorcery fan.

(On a personal note, a quote attributed to me on the front piece of Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush comes from an article I wrote with contributions from a few other authors. The specific quote used in praise of Imaro was written by Black Gate‘s own esteemed Howard A. Jones, not me. Night Shade Books couldn’t have known this, but I have to give credit where credit is due.)

Ryan Harvey is the Managing Editor of Sword and Sorcery. He has lived most of his life in Los Angeles, although he attended Carleton College in Minnesota where he studied Medieval History, Classical Islam, and Film. He considers himself a full-fledged writer, with three completed novels, but has supplemented his income at various times as a speed reading instructor, reading development teacher, and magazine copyeditor. When not absorbing mounds of science fiction and fantasy literature and indulging in pulp, he swing dances wearing bizarre 1930s clothing. He also maintains his own website: The Realm of Ryan.

Fiction Reviews: The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien and Imaro by Charles Saunders

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008 | Posted by Web Master

A Look at Current Fantasy Books

Copyright 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights reserved.

The Children of Húrin
by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin [313 pages, April 2007, $26.00]

Reviewed by Ryan Harvey

A common misconception about the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien often used by critics within the genre is that his work offers “reassurances,” a bucolic and cozy English country professor’s view of the world using those adorable Hobbits. Where this view comes from, I have no idea: Tolkien’s world drips with deepest pessimism taken directly from the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian literature he so loved. The Lord of the Rings tells the epic of the “Long Defeat”: even in victory much that is beautiful must pass away, and the hero is “too deeply hurt” to enjoy the bucolic isolationism that his sacrifice purchases for his people. Hope lives, but not for those who fight to preserve it. Perhaps the publication as a stand-alone work of The Children of Húrin will open more readers’ eyes to the grim Northlands conception of fate that dominates Tolkien’s writing.

Since the posthumous release of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s son Christopher has spent thirty years publishing scholarly volumes analyzing the textual complexity behind the legends of the Elder Days. Many fantasy readers have strangely drawn away from The Silmarillion, finding it dense and incomprehensible. I have always considered this a minor tragedy, for The Silmarillion is one of modern literature’s most astonishing acts of imagination. Its unfiltered epic voice speaks with emotive power that few other authors could hope to achieve in those mammoth sextologies that keep weighing down bookstore shelves. There is nothing like the book, and never will be again.

What then is this ‘new’ book, The Children of Húrin? Tolkien conceived The Silmarillion as an overview of the First Age of Middle-earth, containing within it individual stories that merited expanded tellings, much the same way that The Iliad is one story within the larger framework of the Trojan War. For most of his life, Tolkien worked fitfully on three major stories within the longer sequence of the Elder Days: the fairy tale-inspired “Beren and Lúthien,” the last-stand battle epic “The Fall of Gondolin,” and the tragedy of fate “The Tale of the Children of Húrin.” In the appendices to the new book, Christopher Tolkien explains that the latter story “in its latest form is the chief narrative fiction of Middle-earth after the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings…. For this reason I have attempted in this book, after long study of the manuscripts, to form a text that provides a continuous narrative from start to finish, without the introduction of any elements that are not authentic in conception.” Unlike his scholarly annotated approach in the History of Middle-earth series, the younger Tolkien refrains from footnotes and textual interruptions, providing only an introduction and appendices to explain the composition of the full tale from his father’s manuscripts.

And what a tale it is! Beginning with the gargantuan Battle of Unnumbered Tears, it hurls the reader into the tragedy of the human warrior Túrin, son of Húrin. Captured by the victorious Dark Lord Morgoth in the battle’s aftermath, Húrin must watch from imprisonment the dark fate that falls on his offspring in the shambles of the world. The epic that unfolds uses doses of Greek tragedy and the Icelandic Saga of Volsungs: Túrin fights as an outlaw against Morgoth’s forces, but a doom trails his footsteps and those close to him, and in his confrontation with dragon Glaurung (one of Tolkien’s most deliciously drawn villains) Túrin faces the most horrific personal tragedy of all. The story contains power enough in its abbreviated version in The Silmarillion, but the novel-length text woven together here takes the tragedy to operatic heights. There is now more space for the other sorrowful figures encircled within Túrin’s doom: his sister Niënor, mother Morwen, faithful Elven bowman Beleg, broken Elf warrior Gwindor, crippled Brandir, and heartbroken Finduilas. (“Tell the Mormegil that Finduilas is here” — one of Tolkien’s most poignant epitaphs for a character.) Even with its distant archaic prose, The Children of Húrin has astonishing emotional impact, best summed up in Túrin’s cry: “This only was wanting. Now comes the night!”

Alan Lee, the current artist most closely associated with Tolkien, provides fourteen new color plates and many line illustrations for the book His dreamlike watercolors fit the story ideally, far better than Ted Nasmith’s disappointing work on The Silmarillion, which lacked the mists of myth that Lee provides here. The painting of Glaurung ruining Brethil in a deluge of fire that turns even the mighty dragon into a squiggle among the flames is one of the artist’s finest pieces of work.

An astounding tale and a handsome volume… but will readers unfamiliar with The Silmarillion be able to enjoy a work originally embedded in it? Christopher Tolkien provides an introduction to give newcomers a context to the complexity of events preceding Túrin’s story, but this makes for bewildering reading all on its own. New readers will find the opening chapters a daunting phalanx of people and places and should keep a bookmark on the index of characters in the back pages because they will need to look up names in a flurry. However, as the narrative escalates and the strands of fate tighten, few readers will have trouble following events.

The simplest solution, however, is to read The Silmarillion first. Your local bookstore has it. A friend will let you borrow it. I’ve got extra copies, I’ll loan you one. Please read it. Then read The Children of Húrin. Although it encompasses work many decades old, this publication will stand as one of the best fantasy novels of 2007.

by Charles Saunders
Night Shade Books [224 pages, April 2006, $14.95]

Reviewed by Howard Andrew Jones

Imaro has returned. To those in the know that information can only be greeted with pleasure. To those who enjoy a good sword-and-sorcery romp but who missed out on Imaro the first time, you’re overdue for a look at one of the most unique heroic fiction characters from the 1970s and ’80s.

Imaro is the creation of Charles Saunders, who placed his character in a fantastic Africa, Nyumbani. The stories breathe with atmosphere, so much so that the setting is a character unto itself. The customs, people, and places feel real. While the supernatural and fantastic stalk this world, Saunders’ storytelling skills present even the ordinary features of his setting, from savanna to jungle, as something vivid and new. Tie in Saunders’ skilful world-building with his taut action and suspense scenes and you have an explosive mix, one that Lin Carter was quick to recognize, printing Imaro tales in several books of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series when Carter helmed it in the ’70s.

DAW books quickly came calling after the first Imaro stories appeared, and three Imaro novels followed. That, though, is where things went wrong. A series of publishing missteps and poor promotion left the series floundering. Imaro disappeared and shortly thereafter so did Saunders, at least from the fiction field. Now, a little over twenty years later, Night Shade Press has reprinted the first Imaro novel in a handsome trade paperback, with more novels slated to follow, including new material still underway from Saunders.

When he first appeared Imaro was compared more to Conan than to any other sword-and-sorcery or adventure character. True, both Conan and Imaro are wandering adventurers, and Saunders is one of the few sword-and-sorcery writers with action chops in Robert E. Howard’s league, but to my mind Imaro is more like Hercules than Conan, striding the land doing mighty deeds, aided both by his titanic strength and his cleverness. There is a mark of destiny and doom about him, but not in the Wagnerian sense we find in Moorcock, whose Elric was striding Melniboné at the same time Imaro walked Nyumbani. The Conan stories as conceived by Robert E. Howard were episodes from his life told in no particular order, despite their frequent reordering in collections: Imaro’s tales are presented in chronological sequence. We experience his early days with him and as a result understand his passions and his demons. Born the son of mixed parentage in a warrior society, Imaro longs always for the acceptance of his people, although when he finally earns it his own pride sets him on another path. A mighty warrior, at heart Imaro is a decent, loving man who hides behind a wall of stoicism he’s built both to protect himself during his troubled upbringing and to endure the horrors he’s faced in after years. Most other sword-and-sorcery are rogues born with wanderlust. They’re fascinating to see in action but aren’t necessarily people we’d care to meet. Imaro, however, I have always found honestly likable.

This new edition has an added treat — an entirely new section was devised by Saunders to replace a portion of the original novel that had uncannily foreshadowed some of the horrors we saw in the 1990s when Hutu extremists massacred upwards of 800,000 Tutsi’s and Hutu moderates. Imaro shines even more brightly in this new segment than he did in the original. If there’s a flaw to be found here it’s that the love of Imaro’s life, Tanisha, falls into Imaro’s arms a little too simply; a strange criticism perhaps, in an adventure novel, and it probably speaks to Saunders’ skill with characters and motivations in all other portions of his narrative.

Saunders’ tales have languished too long in out-of-print paperbacks or in hard-to-find small press magazines. This reviewer hopes that renewed interest in Saunders’ works will finally see all of his stories between cook covers. Recognition for Saunders’ contributions to heroic fiction are long overdue, as is Imaro’s return.

Stories from a S&S Griot: Nyumbani Tales by Charles R. Saunders

Tuesday, May 30th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

“I am going to tell a story,” the griot says.
“Ya-ngani!” the crowd responds, meaning “Right!”
“It may be a lie.”
“But not everything in it is false.”
The griot begins his tale.

                                       from “Amma” by Charles R. Saunders

oie_2919383060rtzPRDFor those unfortunates unacquainted with Charles R. Saunders and the tales he’s woven, you can read plenty about them here at Black Gate. Suffice it to say he is called the father of sword & soul. Starting in the 1970s, he took the elements of swords & sorcery — mighty heroes, beautiful women, monsters, deadly magic, and more monsters — and turned them to his own purpose.

A fan of sci fi and fantasy growing up in the 1950s and 60s, by the time he graduated college in 1968, he was frustrated with a lot of what he was reading. As he recounted in an interview with Amy Harlib in The Zone:

I began to realise that in the SF and fantasy genre, blacks were, with only few exceptions, either left out or depicted in racist and stereotypic ways. I had a choice: I could either stop reading SF and fantasy, or try to do something about my dissatisfaction with it by writing my own stories and trying to get them published. I chose the latter course.

It was to the great benefit of heroic fantasy that Saunders made the choice he did. In addition to helping expand the horizons of the genre beyond the European settings that dominated it back then, he also created two monumental characters.

Imaro is the outcast warrior who eventually finds his destiny as champion against the forces of evil. Dossouye is an exiled warrior-woman from the kingdom of Abomey. The stories and novels featuring Imaro and Dossouye belong on the shelves of any S&S fan. If you haven’t read them yet, I suggest you snag copies of Imaro: Book I and Dossouye, clear off whatever else you’re reading, and get started.

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Epic Fantasy from the Father of Sword & Soul: Abengoni: First Calling by Charles R. Saunders

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_105284GMwxHNOHAfter DAW killed the fourth Imaro novel, for nearly twenty years Charles R. Saunders’s published swords & sorcery output was limited to only a few short stories. Since 2006, starting with the reprinting of Imaro, new books from him have been appearing at a furious rate. In addition to new novels starring his established S&S characters, Imaro and Dossouye, he introduced a new pulp hero, Damballa.

Abengoni: First Calling (A:FC) is the first book in Charles R. Saunders’s foray into epic fantasy. From one of the masters of the 1970s golden age of swords & sorcery comes a project in the works for the past decade. And thanks to Milton Davis’s MVmedia, it’s seeing the light of day.

Full disclosure here: Milton Davis asked me to preview this book earlier this year and give him a blurb if I felt like it. Well, I jumped at the chance to read a new Charles Saunders book. That’s like asking if I want to hear some unreleased Led Zeppelin tracks before they hit the general public. There was no way I was going to say no. And before I go any further, I love the book and gave Milton this blurb I totally stand by:

“In Abengoni: First Calling, Charles Saunders writes the sort of epic fantasy I want to read. He tells the tale, with its large cast of sharply drawn characters and complex history, in a wonderfully spare and fast-paced style that doesn’t waste time getting to where it’s going. I can’t wait for the next book.”

When Saunders first created Imaro, his literary inspiration was Robert E. Howard. In this book, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is at work. He has specifically cited the two authors as his main influences. But in both cases, what he wrote was inspired by larger issues as well.

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Griots: Sisters of the Spear edited by Milton J. Davis and Charles R. Saunders

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

oie_1432818nsZyAwhJAs I’ve written before, we are living in a S&S renaissance. A genre that was stuck in a loop of rote characters — fighting the same wizards, stealing the same temple treasures and damsels’ virtues — and virtually extinct from bookstore shelves, has come roaring back to life in the past decade. It may not command the same attention it did forty years ago, but it is rousing and alive.

Something that’s proving to be incredibly reinvigorating to the genre is sword & soul.  Charles Saunders, coiner of the term and creator of Imaro and Dossouye, two of the best heroic fantasy characters, describes it this way:

Fantasy fiction with an African connection in either the characters or the setting…or both.  The setting can be the historical Africa of the world we know, or the Africa of an alternate world, dimension or universe. But that’s not a restriction, because a sword-and-soul story can feature a black character in a non-black setting, or a non-black character in a black setting.  Caveat: Tarzan of the Apes need not apply.

About six years ago Milton Davis started writing and publishing his own sword & soul fiction (though this predates the actual term). When a friend sent one of Davis’ manuscripts to Charles Saunders (which he reviewed in Black Gate), one thing led to another and soon they were collaborators in fostering the creation of more sword & soul stories. Their efforts resulted in the terrific Griots anthology in 2011. As I wrote when I reviewed it at my site last year, it is exciting to see a genre I love evolving in real time.

Two years later Davis and Saunders are back with a sequel anthology, Griots: Sisters of the Spear. One of the driving forces of sword & soul is to present characters not often seen in standard-issue S&S. As Saunders writes in the forward, with this volume he and Davis found authors with characters that:

can hold their own and then some against the barbarians and power-mad monarchs and magic-users of both genders who swings swords and cast spells in the mostly European-derived settings of modern fantasy and sword-and-sorcery.

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Charles R. Saunders Reviews A Desert of Souls

Saturday, March 5th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

desertofsoulsCharles R. Saunders, author of the legendary Imaro books, has weighed in on Howard Andrew Jones’s first novel:

What, then, is so special about The Desert of Souls? Well, just about everything.

Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the Middle East during the initial bloom of Islam’s ascendance, Howard brings to life the storied past of places such as Baghdad, Basra, Mosul… To this tapestry of history, Howard adds several threads of sorcery…

The protagonists and the patron become involved in a fatal encounter in a local bazaar. Events swiftly escalate into a maelstrom of murder, theft, escape, pursuit, magic, mayhem, romance, rejection and redemption, The characters — and the reader — whirl along in a breakneck journey through a Middle East that is ancient, yet well beyond the cusp of irreversible change…

Yet for all this homage to the past, Howard also breaks new ground with this novel, which places him firmly among the ranks of such new-wave sword-and-sorcery writers as Joe Abercrombie, James Enge and Steven Erikson, to name just a few. Remember Howard Andrew Jonses’ name. You will be hearing — and reading — more from him.

Charles’ review joins the recent rave coverage from BookPage, Bush League Critic, and SF Revu.

You can read Charles’ complete review here.

Charles R. Saunders’ ‘Luendi’

Friday, July 17th, 2009 | Posted by Bill Ward

0_61_100906_diamondCharles Saunders has posted a terrific short story over at the blog section of his website — the sort of story that would not have been out of place in a classic issue of Weird Tales. ‘Luendi’ is in four, rather short, parts, and gives us the fate of one Piet van Brug, a man that embodies all the vilest characteristics of imperialism. Colonial Africa in 1890 is the setting, or more precisely an unexplored section of the interior beyond the British and Boer possessions of South Africa dubbed ‘Azungaland’ by its conqueror. It is an area rich in diamonds — rich enough to bring the yoke down around the heads of the peaceful and previously unknown people that live there.

The Azunga rescued van Brug from disease and death in the wake of a disastrous expedition sponsored by Cecil Rhodes to explore the land “between the Zambezi River and the upper reaches of the Kalahari Desert.” Peaceful, living in a fabulous stone kraal akin to the ruins of Zimbabwe, the Azunga welcome van Brug with kindness and are repaid with treachery. When van Brug discovers they posses a rich seam of diamonds in a cave nearby, he returns to Johannesburg, raises an expeditionary army with the diamonds he managed to steal, and returns to enslave the people that had saved his life.

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A Review of Dossouye by Charles R. Saunders

Sunday, May 4th, 2008 | Posted by Web Master

The man is back!

Charles R. Saunders rocked Sword-and-Sorcery in the ’70s and ’80s with his African fantasy hero Imaro, a compelling character who tore through the pages of numerous magazines and whose exploits were ultimately collected in three volumes from DAW. Over the last few years two of those were generously updated and republished by Nightshade Books, causing fans of Saunders’ unforgettable heroes to rejoice at the return of one of the masters of the field.

Now, via Brother Uraeus’ newly created Sword & Soul Media imprint, Saunders brings us the tales of Dossouye, a warrior woman from an alternate Africa that — while not the same as Imaro’s Nyumbani — nevertheless brims with all of the jeweled kingdoms, scheming sorcerers, doomed quests, and death-defying heroes ravenous fantasy fans have come to expect. It’s epic storytelling immersed in a feat of enchanting world-building that at its best rivals Tolkien, and this week at Black Gate reviewer Bill Ward brings you all of the exciting details.


Fiction Review: Dossouye by Charles R. Saunders

Sunday, May 4th, 2008 | Posted by Web Master

By Bill Ward

Copyright © 2008 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.

Charles R. Saunders
Sword & Soul Media, 198 pages, April 2008, 19.95

Newcomer Sword & Soul Media aims to prove that three times really is the charm with its planned release of the as-yet-unpublished concluding volumes of Charles R. Saunders’ superb Imaro series, finally completing an epic that began twenty years and two publishers ago. But Imaro is not the only fantasy hero of Saunders’ who will finally be getting their due, for Sword & Soul have just come out with Dossouye, a collection of stories old and new revolving around a female champion every bit as formidable — and as carefully realized — as Saunders’ legendary Ilyassai warrior.

Dossouye begins with “Agbewe’s Sword,” a novella-length tale that introduces Dossouye and her world with the deft touch characteristic of Saunders’ writing. After only a few pages the reader is fully immersed in Dossouye’s world, learning of its grand rivalries and more intimate antagonisms, its peoples, traditions, and potent magics. Inspired by the historical cultures of West Africa, the environment of Dossouye has an authentic, richly rendered quality familiar to those who have read Saunders’ Imaro, a setting that both sets a wonderfully evocative tone and informs the motives and perceptions of the characters and societies that inhabit it. Saunders does not use his setting as mere window-dressing, but instead infuses all levels of his story with the kind of vibrant sense of place that makes his world come alive.

The reader enters this world on the eve of a catastrophic defeat for the army of Abomey, Dossouye’s people, a defeat inflicted by enemy sorcery. Dossouye, a soldier of the ahosi, Abomey’s corps of women warriors who are literally considered the brides of their Leopard King, survives, as does her steadfast and constant companion Gbo, a war-bull of semi-tame water buffalo stock. But so to does Nyima, the commander of the ahosi and onetime rival of Dossouye’s mother, who hates Dossouye with a dangerous intensity and seeks to thwart her even at the expense of the kingdom.

Abomey must resort to magic, to vudunu, and hope that its gods and ancestors can prove up to the test of defeating the enemy that threatens to destroy it. But Dossouye receives a vision in a dream from the first ancestor of her clan, Agbewe, and embarks on a quest for that ancestor’s sword that is complicated by the rivalries within her own clan. “Agbewe’s Sword” juxtaposes the large events of politics, war, and quest with more intimate themes of friendship, jealousy, and tradition to create an adventure with a depth not often seen in Sword & Sorcery fiction.

I won’t spoil the resolution to “Agbewe’s Sword,” I will only say that the story sets Dossouye on her path of voluntary exile from her people. Together with Gbo, she wanders far from home, and the remaining stories in Dossouye are episodes in her rootless life. However, the book should not be thought of a collection of unrelated stories, for Saunders’ has taken pains to combine them into an episodic novel, writing new stories and rewriting old ones, so that the whole of Dossouye is cohesive and integrated within an overall structure — one really cannot sample these stories out of order as could be done with a volume of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Elric tales.

In her further adventures there is of course hard fighting, and dark magic, and encounters with beings strange and wondrous. Saunders is adept at pacing, and writes with the strength and verve of the pulp tradition without inheriting its faults. But it’s the unexpected elements of Dossouye that I think deserve special mention for, in a story that works so well as adventure fantasy, there is a great deal more going on just beneath the surface.

Imaro was born as the antidote to so many of the shallow stereotypes of Africans in pulp fiction, and Dossouye of course continues in this vein by presenting a capable protagonist in a complex and multi-hued alternate Africa setting. But Dossouye also subverts the perhaps even more pervasive stereotype of the role of women in Sword & Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy, while avoiding the perils of overcompensation or banner waving. Dossouye is neither a collection of hyper-feminine characteristics, a man in drag, or a clumsy attempt at a superwoman — she is instead as authentically drawn as the world she inhabits, a believable woman warrior who wears both mantles with a naturalness that is testament to Saunders’ insight, craft, and good taste.

The role of tradition in society is a central theme in Dossouye, one that is addressed in a thought-provoking and often surprising way. Dossouye, herself having discovered that not everything she took for granted in her traditional upbringing was true, encounters several cultures not her own that she views with an outsider’s appraising perspective. In “Shiminege’s Mask,” she wisely and wilily maneuvers within a villages’ existing tradition to free them from a parasitic evil, and only when a more direct approach, the revelation of the truth of her interference, is tried does her effort meet with defeat. The role of tradition is also central to perhaps my favorite story in Dossouye, “Yahimba’s Choice,” which deals soberly with the odious practice of female ‘circumcision’ within a society, and the brave choice of a young girl who must undergo the rite. Dossouye, having seen much that she would choose to oppose and herself free from many of the mores or limitations of the various societies she encounters, still has the wisdom to consider the importance of tradition and community for the members of those cultures — a refreshing change from many of the current crop of two-dimensional heroes in fantasy fiction, who indulge in personal crusades divorced of all consequence to those around them.

Saunders doesn’t shy from showing the consequences of actions in Dossouye, and this refusal to dumb down gives the book much of its resonance and realism. Dossouye pays a price for her heroism, for her estrangement from community, and even for her honesty in the face of tradition. In “Obenga’s Drum,” the final story in this collection, Dossouye confronts the consequences of her many actions and must accept both her mistakes and successes. Dossouye, alone in the world and severed spiritually from her people and ancestors, at last earns a kind of peace through the magic of a stranger who himself has suffered deeply. In the final scene of the book Dossouye continues her journey, but, having gained an understanding of herself, and a vision that reaffirms her ties to her ancestors, is perhaps herself no longer lost.

Sword & Soul Media have done an excellent job bringing Dossouye to print — the layout, design, and copy are all top notch. Printed as a POD from Lulu, I can attest that the book, a perfect-bound trade paperback, is handsomely done and sturdy, with no discernable signs of wear after my somewhat ungentle reading and book marking. The scintillating cover art of Mshindo Kuumba deserves special mention for its otherworldly kineticism. If Sword & Soul’s future offerings continue to live up to the high standard set by Dossouye, then fans of quality fantasy can rejoice that Charles R. Saunders tragically neglected works of fantastic fiction will at last get the attention they deserve.

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