Author: Charles R. Saunders
Published by: Night Shade Books
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
I’m not the biggest fan of sword and sorcery style fantasy, probably because older heroic fantasy just tends to be some guy running around with a big sword and killing people. Not very interesting by my standards, give me intergenerational war and conspiracies in my fantasy fiction please. But I needed to read a sword and sorcery book for r/fantasy bingo 2016, and also buy my dad a birthday present.
So when I stumbled across Imaro I figured it must be fate. An epic tale of magic and adventure set in a reimagined pre-colonial Africa that was one of the first sword and sorcery novels written by a Black author and has been compared to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian? Sign me up.
Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Imaro struggles growing up among the Ilyassai, a fierce tribe of warrior-herdsmen. Although one of the strongest and most adept youths, he is ostracized due to his heritage as the son of a foreigner and a banished mother. As Imaro becomes a man his skills and strength are like none other the Ilyssai have seen before but his quest for acceptance and identity continues.
After leaving his mother’s people, he roams farther than any Ilyssai has ever gone before, fighting unknown beasts, men and demons. And although eventually Imaro finds a people to call friends, he cannot rest as he learns of powerful enemies, both human and inhuman wielding dark magic, who will stop at nothing to see him dead.
Imaro is a masterpiece of world building. The book is set in the vast continent of Nyumbani, a pre-colonial, alternate version of Africa that blends myth and history together. Saunders meticulously crafts detail and meaning into every encounter Imaro has on his journeys. Together, both Imaro and the reader travel across Nyumbani, meeting people with different cultures, landscapes and histories.
As an interesting note, the edition rereleased in 2006 is actually heavily revised, containing a new story that did not exist in the 1981 original release published by DAW Books. Due to Saunders feeling that “The Slaves of the Giant-Kings” held too many parallels to the Rwandan Genocide (although the story was written before the tragedy occurred), the story was replaced by “The Afua,” a story which Saunders wrote specifically for the rerelease. When reading I actually couldn’t tell which sections were original or new and had to look it up. To me, this is a testament to Saunders’ skills as a writer and his grasp on the characters. At no point in the book did I feel that the story strayed from Imaro and his goals.
Although Saunders addresses racial and cultural diversity to great detail, I wish more attention had been paid to gender. To my understanding (or perhaps my stereotypes), heroic sword and sorcery is traditionally a dude with a sword and his buddies on a quest with a distinct lack of women involved except as love interests. In this regard, Imaro is unfortunately (in my opinion) a very traditional sword and sorcery novel. The women in the book are primarily love interests and they never evolved enough for me to grasp their character beyond their relationship with Imaro. Although Tanisha does learn to fight later on in the book and stands beside Imaro in battle, she still remained sadly one dimensional to me. If Imaro had contained more well rounded female characters this could have easily been a five star book for me.
All in all though, Imaro is a really good sword and sorcery fantasy. And I say this as someone who doesn’t traditionally enjoy the subgenre. Saunders made me easily fall in love with the richness of Nyumbani, and the lost and lonely child who grew into a man who struggles to find a place of acceptance. I’ll hopefully manage to pick up the sequel some time later this year.