Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review - The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Short review: Demane is a caravan guard with unusual abilities. Then he enters the Wildeeps, and his life changes forever.

Brother sorcerer
With others in the Wildeeps
Fights the jukiere

Full review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a difficult book to assess. Straddling the line between science fiction and fantasy, this story follows Demane, the descendant of long-gone alien beings now revered as gods, as he travels with a caravan to, and into the mysterious "Wildeeps", where he confronts an adversary and must come to grips with his own true nature. The book is a strange mixture of gritty realism, epic adventure, myth, science, and romance, all stirred together in a book that relies more on atmosphere than action, and at times turns almost dream-like, adding up to a reading experience that is at times raw and visceral, and at other ethereal and elusive.

The book opens like a somewhat pulpy fantasy novel, with a collection of caravan guards engaged in their daily practice to stay sharp. Among the usual collection of somewhat shiftless mercenaries and snooty merchants are two rather unique individuals. One is Demane, the titular sorcerer and constant presence throughout the book as the story remains almost unrelentingly focused upon him. The second is the Captain (also known as Isa), strong, fast, tireless, and under a compulsion to sing instead of speak. Once the stage is set, Wilson begins to weave together multiple threads that are an elusive melange of mystery and vulgarity, contrasting the crude humor and lusts of the ordinary caravan guards with the mercurial nature and almost delicate romance of Demane and the Captain.

In a certain sense, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a frustrating story to try to describe, a characteristic which I believe is intentional: Wilson seems to have constructed his story in a manner that reflects the almost inherently contradictory nature of its central figure. Demane is clearly gifted with physical and mental prowess beyond that of other men, and has knowledge and learning that is clearly much more advanced than that of his fellows. He even has a collection of items that are so high tech compared to that found in the society around him that everyone else regards his use of them as evidence of his magical powers. Despite these many gifts and advantages, Demane is a simple caravan guard, looked down upon as an uncouth lout by the merchants who employ him, and regarded as an out land barbarian by most others. In short, despite being one of the most gifted individuals in the world, he is relegated to what may be the lowest rung of society. The story is riddled with these sort of disparities, and the structure of how it is told serves to reinforce them.

The language of the story ranges from vulgar slang to epic lyricism to technical details, reflecting the many aspects of the story itself. Demane is sometimes confused and disturbed by the rough humor of his fellow caravan guards, but he works through these issues all the while trying to explain the things he understands to them in terms they can understand. The conflict of language reflects the conflict throughout the story, as Demane struggles to live within a society that simply doesn't comprehend him or his knowledge, and instead ascribes his capabilities to the supernatural: The reader is presented with a story that explores Arthur C. Clarke's axiom that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Demane (and Isa) reside in this netherworld of understanding, existing in a world that its inhabitants perceive as fantasy, but knowing that the reality is far different.

The story itself, when all of the layers or language, and all of the tensions of contradiction are stripped away, is fairly straightforward. Demane is a caravan guard. For much of the length of the book, the caravan has stopped in Mother of Waters, the last city before entering the Wildeeps, an interlude that allows the reader to see something of a cross-section of the world around Demane, although for the most part, the reader is only presented the seedy side of the culture where cheap alcohol, cheap prostitutes, and gambling are the order of the day, and rough justice is handed out to those who transgress against either the law or the customs of the city. But there are also flashbacks to Demane's earlier life among his people in what is regarded as a less civilized land, under the tutelage of his "Aunty", an ancient ancestor who reveals her wisdom to him before vanishing into the stars. Eventually, the caravan sets out through the Wildeeps where it is preyed upon by the beast that has been hinted at throughout the book, eventually forcing Demane to reluctantly embrace his true nature, and make a choice from which there is no return.

The story has a few weaknesses. The narrative wanders and digresses quite a bit, and the actual plot doesn't really get moving until the last quarter of the book or so. The lurching nature of the language, though integral to the story, is sometimes hard to follow. The greatest weakness in the book is its treatment of women: The only real female character of any sort is "Aunty", and she isn't so much a character as she is a plot device. The only other women who appear in the story are either prostitutes in the slums of Mother of Waters or far away wives and mothers who are only mentioned in passing.

With all of the elements thrown into it, plus some rather convoluted use of language, one would think that The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps would be too much of a mess to actually work as a story. Paradoxically, these elements only serve to make the story stronger, resulting in a tale that comfortably alternates between gritty realism and dreamlike fantasy, with a tiny bit of technological sophistication thrown in for good measure. Part romance, part grim cruelty, part epic poetry, and part legendary adventure, this book delivers a fascinating tale that aggregates them all into a bizarre and unsettling, but ultimately delicious whole.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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  1. I don't know that this is for me, I'm so finicky when it comes to sci-fi. I gathered it worked for you, for the most part.

    1. @fredamans: It works in some ways in the same way that the novel Dhalgren works. It kind of doesn't make direct sense, but the themes and overarching sense of the story end up coming together into a coherent whole anyway.

  2. Great review, Aaron! It really was such a weird mishmash, yet overall it worked for me. But I listened to the audiobook, so it was kinda confusing at first. I believe reading it would've been a bit less confusing..

    1. @Kendall: Thanks. I don't use audiobooks - I just can't focus on a spoken word story well enough to listen to an audiobook - so I don't know how it would have worked as one. It is still a kind of confusing mish-mash even as a written work, but it is also brilliant, and that's what counts in the end.