The Imaro Review
I’m ashamed to admit it has taken me this long to finally read Imaro by Charles R. Saunders. Having finally read one of the seminal works in sword and sorcery, I’m glad that I finally did. Imaro is amazing. This book is going on my shopping list.
But first, some background. Charles R. Saunders, in the 1970s, desired to write the stories he wanted to read- stories inspired by his African heritage. Thus was born the character Imaro and his world of Nyumbani. The Imaro stories where published throughout the later seventies and early eighties before being reissued (and revised) in the 2000s.
Imaro is a short story novel that depicts the life of Imaro, an Ilyassai youth, at various ages from five (when his mother abandons him) to late teens or very early twenties (when he leads his haramia band). The novel, and the component short stories, explore Imaro’s growth as a great warrior and his conflicted status as an outsider as he confronts enemies both mortal and sorcerous.
And this is what is so amazing with Imaro as a character. He is the “son of no father”, an outsider, who desperately wants to be accepted by his mother’s people. But they hold him in utter disdain until it is far too late. Their acceptance comes only after he has come to hate them, and himself for wanting to be accepted by them. But that desire to belong is still present for Imaro. He achieves this when he joins the haramia and earns the acceptance and respect of outsiders like him.
Pity he has demon gods and their sorcerer servants after him.
Is this destiny, as implied by the narration (the language equating Imaro with a weapon during its forging stages), or is this the inability to let go of a grudge (Imaro certainly seems incapable of letting go, and the same seems equally true of the Mashataan and their Namaan servants)?
Personally, I think the narrative thrust has more to do with a general inability on the part of most of the characters to let go of grudges.
All of the stories that make up Imaro are quite good. But the best ones are “The Place of Stones,” “The Afua,” and “The Black Hills.” I also quite like “Betrayal in Blood,” but I feel that Imaro’s rise to a military prodigy that can run the combined armies of two of the most powerful kingdoms on Nyumbani raged to be a bit much.
Imaro can be a great warrior without being a great general. Making him such a prodigy, while giving him a credible reason to put off his pursuit of the Mashataan, creates the impression that Imaro is, in part, wish fulfillment.
Not that wish fulfillment is a bad thing. It isn’t. Quite the contrary, wish fulfillment can be a great thing.
On the whole, Imaro as wish fulfillment is handled extremely well. Except when he is depicted as a military prodigy.
The biggest problem with the stories that make up Imaro is Imaro’s love interests. Both Keteke and Tanisha are war trophies. Imaro won Keteke during a raid on the Zamburu, a tribe bordering the Ilyassai. Tanisha is meant for a noble’s harem before she is captured by the haramia and becomes Imaro’s woman. Yes both women willingly “choose” to be Imaro’s, but that choice is effectively negated by their circumstances. Keteke is a straighter example given that she is more explicitly a war prize. But Tanisha “choosing” Imaro as “her one and only” is, to me at least, a poor attempt at giving Tanisha the semblance of choice. Perhaps a better option would have been to have Tanisha be a member of the haramia and avoid the war trophy implications.
The world building of Nyumbani is fairly impressionistic. Nyumbani is a fantasy construction explicitly based on Africa. Many of the tribes and cultures of Nyumbani can be easily traced to real world counterparts. The best example are the Maasai inspired Ilyassai, but the sources of inspiration are quite clear to the reader.
I like the world building. The impressionistic quality avoids the information dumps that can so often ruin fantasy novels.
Despite its flaws, I love Imaro. This is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite a while. A definite inclusion to my buy list.