As a fan of fantasy as a genre, and roleplaying games, and most things geeky, I’ve felt a lurking sense of obligation to the sword n sorcery subgenre. I’m not 100% sure I could accurately define it for you here and now, but I know it when I smell it. Unfortunately the stories have left me largely unimpressed: characters like Elric and Conan, settings like The Vulgar Unicorn, largely leave me with an empty stomach and a few guilt-pangs towards the ghost of John Ronald. Those tales are reminiscent of high school fantasy essays we’d write, which in turn were like bad narrations of a D&D campaign.
I was told by experts that one should really be reading The Grey Mouser to get the right impression of sword n sorcery, but I never took the dive.
Then there are those books that seem to straddle both sword n sorcery (“low” fantasy) and the high fantasy realms of, naturally, Tolkien. Ursula Leguin comes to mind on that score. While her stories are briefer, and have a tendency to tick many of the sword n sorcery boxes, they have a much higher style and stronger worldbuilding.
It should also be noted that I would count the few other “high fantasy” writers I’ve read (like Robert Jordan or Georgie Martin) in this same camp: they’re good but just don’t have the chops or professional background required to reach into the Tolkien end of the spectrum. They’re all writers and not professional linguists.
Thus when I happily discovered I’d stumbled upon a panel about Charles R. Saunders during the virtual end of this year’s DragonCon, my reaction was ambivalent. Saunders is thought of as the father of “sword n soul.” This would be, simply, the Black iteration of the sword n sorcery genre. As one of the panelists described, it’s everything you know about sword n sorcery but from a Black perspective. It seemed a wonderful combination: fantasy through the lens of the Black experience.
I immediately bought the ebook of Imaro and got after it.
However the ambivalence was still there. It sprang from my curiosity for the idea of sword n soul and my general annoyance with sword n sorcery as I’d experienced it thus far. The early pages of Imaro rang more warning bells, as the troubling early years of the character and his struggle to find a place among his mother’s people sounded all too much like the adolescent whinings of one Elric of Melnibone. “Here we go,” I thought.
But as the story continued I found that, while Imaro carries with him some of the outrageous, superhuman brawn of Conan and some of the interpersonal challenges of Elric, he is something much more. He’s more fully orbed and human than they are. Even if his exterior does not express it, the narrator gives us glimpses into his internal world and paints for us a picture of a deep well of a man. As the world around him continues to grow and we find that, while it contains the topography of our own Africa as well as sorcery (mchawi) and nation-building like Earthsea, it’s somehow much more.
Saunders’ pacing is excellent, carrying us through the travails of Imaro’s childhood into his adulthood at a brisk but believable trot. The action is frequent but well-written; as anyone who has tried will tell you, detailed physical combat can be hard to describe but Saunders does it clearly and with ease. Nyumbani (Imaro’s world/continent) is constructed with a subtle and casual precision that shows us, yes, this is the Africa to Middle-earth’s Europe, but the rules are very different and owe practically nothing to the realm of Hobbits and Nazgul. Sorcery and the spirit world are effortlessly eased into the story as well, without the vast exposition of unnecessary magic systems that can so often plague contemporary fantasy (this was written in the 1960s).
The use of language is also done nicely and not unlike Tolkien. I’m not sure if Saunders uses actual African languages or some of his own derivation, but the editing (oftentimes non-English terms are italicized and then interpreted) and consistent usage have the ring of a language expert. Ultimately, it’s very exciting and edifying to get shoulder-deep in a fantasy world that is not content to prance around under the looming shadow of the Professor.
I tore through the back half of the book. It’s a long journey of events that seem, initially, unconnected. But Imaro‘s author weaves its protagonist’s experiences together and back again in a satisfying and full way. Secondary, even tertiary, characters are introduced and used up by the plot, but it never feels cheap. Just enough of their stories are given to humanize them and make them a real part of the world. When we wrap things up, we’re left with more questions and hopes for the next book.
And, perhaps, sword n soul can redeem my poor impression of sword n sorcery in the end. All it took was fresh perspective.