Those of you that follow this blog at all know that I’m enjoy science fiction. It fills my need to escape into a story, while, at it’s best, still making me think about interesting and often currently relevant issues. The frequently associated genre, fantasy, is not as appealing to me—though I dabble in it from time to time—because it engages me on a more emotional level. It’s not that I avoid engaging on emotional levels; it’s that when I’m trying to escape, some of the things I’m escaping from are my emotions.
In addition, I almost always find that the fantasy worlds created are throwbacks to a bygone age, so unrelated to our contemporary world or where we might be going that they are irrelevant. Typically, there are retrograde chivalry and a regressive, hierarchical social system in which I have no interest and from which the author seems to gain little in terms of lessons or ideas that apply to the present day. (Of course, fantasy is a big genre and there are notable exceptions, such as China Mieville, Harlan Ellison, and, most famously, J. R. R. Tolkien. Whether or not J. K. Rowling should go on this list is the subject of debate among many.)
Given my feelings, it was with suspicion and reluctance that I received the recommendation from Alisa, germinator of this blog, for Imaro and Imaro II: The Quest for Cush (Charles Saunders, 2006 and 2007). She lent them to me, urging me to get past the cover art, which smacks of blacksploitation—think huge, splendid black man with a sword in his hand and nearly naked voluptuous woman, kneeling at his feet. My experience with the books both confirmed and belied my expectations: while there’s certainly a danger of reading them from an exploitative stance, Saunders doesn’t intend them that way and they are worth looking at as long as you like the sword and sorcery genre. This is not to say they are great literature. But they definitely filled the escapist bill I was hoping for.
Saunders writes in the introduction to the first book, a story of working on the Imaro tale in the 1970s and then letting it drop as he moved on to other projects. In 2003, a reader contacted him, writing how much he enjoyed the Imaro stories he’d read and what a great thing it would be to see them collected in book form and completed. That was motivation Saunders needed and now we have three books in the series, though I have yet to locate the third.
Back in the 70s, Saunders had intentionally created an African hero out of African material, mixing cultures and traditions to serve his own authorial intent, because he wasn’t seeing those myths in the fantasy novels on the market. He wrote the kind of story he wanted to read and he figured there would be some others interested in the same thing. Conceived partly with politics in mind, Saunders’ ability as a storyteller makes the result an eminently readable page-turner. We move from one adventure to another, Imaro battling and slicing through enemies both human and not. An overarching narrative focuses the plot and maintains tension between battle climaxes. The books do not have the subtle, elegiac beauty of Tolkien’s classic novels, but they are a product of a very different and much less melancholic time and they have their own celebratory energy.