Among them will come
The Child of Wonder
And they will
Know him not.
This edition of Imaro is a trade paperback produced by Night Shade Books (2006), a small press based in San Francisco. The cover, by Vince Evans, is quite striking, depicting Imaro holding off a band of Turkhana raiders, a scene from the chapter Turkhana Knives. While strongly bound, the paper of the trade is relatively coarse and the front and back covers of my volume are unfortunately starting to curl. The font is simple, large and easily legible and the proofing of the text is on the whole excellent.
“I go… but I leave a warrior behind.”
During the 1970’s, Charles Saunders (B. 1946), frustrated with the lack of black characters in science fiction and fantasy, began writing a series of heroic fantasies set in a fantastic version of Africa. Inspired by the method and style of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan of Cimmeria), the cultures of Nyumbani (the word for ‘home’ in Swahili) is heavily based on historical African countries and peoples, ranging from fierce nomadic tribes to clans of peaceful river folk to sophisticated kingdoms of vast wealth and military prowess. Through these lands strides Imaro, a mighty warrior, son of a brave and fearless woman, Katisa, and an unknown father. Scorned and rejected most his life by his mother’s people, the Illyassai, Imaro wanders the continent of Nyumbani, seeing its wonders, learning its secrets, searching for a place where he can belong, and coming into conflict with the High Sorcerers of Naama and their masters the Mashataan, elder demons who have sworn to slay him and the threat he represents.
The Imaro stories first appeared in various small press fanzines, and then graduated to mass-market paperback anthologies such as The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories and Swords Against Darkness. In 1981 Saunders use six of the Imaro stories as the core of his first novel, Imaro. Publication of Imaro was delayed a month thanks to a threat of a lawsuit from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, concerning a cover blurb calling Imaro a black Tarzan. This delay hurt sales of the book, and the sequel (Imaro II: The Search for Cush, which was also a ‘fix-up’ novel utilizing other stories from the series) did not appear until three years later due to self-admitted personal problems and a lack of discipline on the part of Saunders. A third novel, Imaro III: The Trail of Bohu, was published in 1985. The sequels sold no better than the first book and DAW rejected the fourth Imaro novel. No other publishers were interested in the series, while much of Saunders own enthusiasm for it was dampened in 1994 by the horrific genocide of ethnic Tutsi by Hutu extremists in Rwanda, an event uncomfortably similar to those in the chapter Slaves of the Giant Kings. By then Saunders turned his energies to journalism and historical non-fiction.
Saunders interest in Imaro renewed in 2003 after receiving an e-mail from fantasy fan and Robert E. Howard enthusiast Benjamin Szumskyj inquiring if the series would ever be reprinted. Saunders totally excised Slaves of the Giant Kings from Imaro, added two new chapters to the novel, and heavily revised the series as a whole. In 2006 Night Shade Press released their first printing of the revised Imaro, and have declared their intention of printing the revised edition of Imaro II: The Search for Cush sometime in 2007. This revised edition of Imaro is the subject of my review.
The language of the Illyassai
Is the language of the spear.
Imaro is divided into two parts. Part one, The Illyassai, tells us of Imaro’s childhood and adolescence. Here we learn that Katisa, Imaro’s mother, fled from her clan the Kitoko to avoid an unwanted marriage to the corrupt shaman Chitendu. She returns three years later with Imaro, exposes Chitendu’s evil, and helps drive him away. But though Katisa helped saved them from an insidious evil, her clan has no love for her, for she had broken an Illyassai taboo by bearing the son of someone not of their people, a man who she adamantly refuses to name. This transgression is punishable by death, but the Kitoko do not entirely lack gratitude, and accept Katisa’s bargain – she will raise Imaro for two more years, until he is old enough to begin mafundishu-ya-muran, the harsh warrior training of the Illyassai. She will then exile her self from the Kitoko and the Illyassai for all time, while they in turn train Imaro in their warrior arts. The Kitoko honor their side of the bargain, though they treat Imaro, the son of no father, with derision and scorn. Imaro grows strong and hard, his unknown heritage granting him size, strength and speed greater than youths of comparable years. At the age of eighteen Imaro undergoes the olmaiyo, the Illyassai rite of manhood, in which an Illyassai youth slays a lion in single combat. Imaro accomplishes the deed magnificently, killing his lion in a heroic manner. However, sorcery clouds the eyes of his witnesses – they see Imaro fail his trial by running from his lion, thus declaring himself ilmonek, an un-man. They capture him, holding him prisoner so he can be subjected to The Shaming – ritual torture, embarrassment, and exile. Imaro escapes and inflicts a terrible vengeance on his clan, sending their ngombe, their almost sacred cattle, stampeding into the wilderness. Over the course of the next few months he slays Kanoko, his rival, and Muburi, the shaman who betrayed him. He then travels to the Place of Stones, a pre-human ruin shunned by his tribe, to confront Muburi’s master, whom Imaro learns to his horror to be a mutated Chitendu. Imaro slays Chitendu in single combat, and in turn is saved from Chitendu’s ghoulish servitors by Kitoko warriors led by their chieftain, Imaro’s grandfather, and their master of arms. With Chitendu’s death the spell that clouded their memory of Imaro’s olmaiyo disappears, and they offer him a place of great honor within the clan. But though he has long desired to be accepted by his mother’s people, Imaro discovers he can’t forgive them for the thirteen years of abuse and cruelty he suffered at their hands. He rejects the Illyassai and travels north to find his own place in the world.
In part two, The Haramia, Imaro wanders into the rainforests north of the savannah of the Illyassai. There he saves the lives of two young men of the Mtumwe, a tribe of riverfolk. The Mtumwe show their gratitude by taking him into their village and teaching him the ways of the forest. However, Imaro is captured by the adventurous haramia, bandits who roam the borderlands of the Eastern kingdoms. The haramia also carry away the Mtumwe’s sacred idol, the Afua. Through a ritual of torture Imaro joins the haramia instead of being sold into slavery, and eventually becomes his band’s leader by destroying the Afua, which upon being desecrated grows to titanic proportions and animates, slaying several bandits as it rampages. During this episode Imaro meets Tanisha, a woman of the Shikaza and the great love of his life. Under his leadership, Imaro’s band of haramia grows in size, wealth and infamy. Imaro gains a formidable reputation, and enemies old and new rise up to oppose him – the kingdoms of Zandj and Azania send armies against his band, jealous rivals plot against him, and the dread sorcerers of Naama and their minions once again appear.
In the country of the fierce,
An Illyassai is king.
One of the great pleasures of Imaro is the freshness of the novel, despite it being over twenty years old – nearly thirty if you count its original form as short stories. The cultures and mythologies of Africa have so far been relatively untapped in fantasy fiction, and Saunders proves with Imaro that the genre is far poorer for it. Each group of people on display is distinct, having its own unique, African style even if seeming nominally similar to something found in European style fantasy, such as the haramia bandit clans or the kingdoms of Azania and Zandj. Small details mentioned in passing, such as the wrist knives of the Turkhana or the great height possessed by the Ndashikuya tribe, accumulate and add to Nyumbani’s richness. Sometimes it feels like Saunders uses too many asides in the course of a chapter in order to explain the various terms and customs he describes, yet my fascination rarely flagged. By the end of Imaro I wanted to see more of Nyumbani and learn more of its people, their traditions and their terrors.
Imaro himself is an interesting character. Though possessing similar traits to Conan – strength, courage, swiftness, intelligence, and a terrible bloodlust – he is not simply a ‘chocolate covered Cimmerian’, to paraphrase Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s uncharitable description of the Illyassai warrior. Most of his life he received little but abuse and contempt at the hands of the people he wanted to belong to, wanted to love. Outwardly he is stoic, sometimes sullen, concealing the pain and sadness he at times feels. While undergoing his mafundishu-ya-muran he had contemplated suicide or running away, yet pride and stubbornness keeps him from doing, for he wants to honor his mother’s belief in him and prove the Illyassai wrong. Unlike Conan, Imaro can doubt himself. The haramia sing his praises as he leads them to glory and treasure the likes of which they never seen before, and he wonders if he’s deserving of it. It feels strange to be exulted so after a lifetime as an object of scorn. Also his stubbornness, which can be a great strength, also works against him at times. Ultimately Imaro wants to belong somewhere, to find a place where he is respected and welcomed, though fate seems to oppose this desire.
Saunders’ prose is prosaic at spots. The numerous asides and explanations mentioned earlier sometimes makes passages a bit of an info dump, and while the writing in its best moments has the cadences of a spoken myth or legend, its never quite as vigorous as Saunders wishes it to be, nor possesses the surprising elegance or beauty the best of Robert E. Howard’s fantasies can have. But Saunders’ writing is honest, and you can feel the affection has for his characters and setting (though I hasten to add he doesn’t make things easy for Imaro – far from it). This enthusiasm is infectious, and helps sweep the reader along where the prose sometimes falters.
Mightier than all,
Mightier than all,
Is Imaro! Imaro!
Charles Saunders is a skilled and talented writer, and the Imaro series of novels deserved better than it got the first time around. Like Michael Moorcock with Elric and Karl Edward Wagner with Kane, Saunders tried to bring something new to swords and sorcery with Imaro and his world. While Imaro is not quite as radically removed from Conan the way Elric is, nor as broodingly Byronic as Kane, he is different and distinct from his literary inspiration. Saunders wrote the Imaro stories not only to give fantasy ‘a black character that matters’, but to also have the kind of stories he wanted to read himself – a worthy motivation that has led to the creation of some great works of fantasy. Nyumbani is a rich setting brimming with ideas and plots to be mined. Yet even if you’re not interested in gaming in an African style setting, if you’re a lover of good swords and sorcery, Imaro is very much worth your time.
Style: 4 out of 5
Substance: 4 out of 5
Imaro the Illyassai returns in grand form in this excellent novel of swords and sorcery set in an exotic but underutilized background – a glamorous fantasy Africa.