Title: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Author: Kai Ashante Wilson
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I purchased a copy via Kobo
The gods may have left earth, but that doesn’t mean that there are no traces of their existence scattered across the land. Rarely, there are people whose blood runs true with godly inheritance, like Demane, who can heal others, shapeshift, conjure fire, and more besides. Then there’s Captain, the leader of Demane’s caravan, a man burning with inner fire — a man with the power of music in his voice, an incredible capacity for physical regeneration, and an incredible ability to fight and kill.
People like Demane and Captain aren’t the only remnants of powers far stranger than we know. Deep in the south of the continent are the Wildeeps, a place where dimensions are knitted together and where the only safe place to rest is the Road — stray too far beyond its borders, and you may find yourself stranded in a completely different world, lost in both time and space.
Demane and Captain are the two strongest, most capable men of Master Suresh l’Merqerim’s caravan, and they know it. So does pretty much every other hired man there, like Demane’s circumspect countryman Cumalo, cowards like Xho Xho and Walead, and superstitious old buggers like Faedou.
However, when the caravan stops to replenish at the Station at Mother of Waters, Demane learns that there’s something haunting the Road in the Wildeeps that may test even their martial skill: a jukiere, a monstrous creature that can cross dimensions and has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. The Wildeeps, untamed by magical users for centuries, desperately needs someone to destroy this menace, and Demane may be the only person capable of doing so.
I first heard of Kai Ashante Wilson when Tor.com published his story “The Devil in America” last year. It drew a lot of strong responses; it’s a painful story about race relations, the loss and theft of cultural heritage, and how modern-day America’s treatment of black bodies — Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin — hasn’t changed all that much from the past.
Now, with The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Wilson pivots from telling a story about a probable past to a possible alternate world. But his focus still remains on centering the black body and experience within the narrative — when reading Wildeeps, readers get the sense that this isn’t your bog-standard vaguely European sword-and-sorcery story going on.
For one thing, the story features a compelling mix of language, where the florid prose of traditional high fantasy and the tech-speak of science fiction gives way to Black Vernacular English from sentence to sentence. So we move from passages like this:
That voice! Captain lacked the power of speech, was capable only of song. He could stand dumb, gesturing, or else make incomparable music. Even in a monosyllable, it was possible to hear him struggling to tarnish his pure tones, hoarsen their rich clarity; trying to turn his vox seraphica into a thing befitting the vulgar, violent world of a caravan guardsman. But calliphony was as inseparable from the captain’s voice as blood from a living heart, and he could do nothing, try as he might, to make any utterance of his less than the loveliest you’d ever heard, or would ever hear, so long as you lived.
“Why’d they do it, though?” Cumalo said. “Abandon y’all here? I always did wonder: the gods, just taking off into the great forever and beyond like that, and leaving behind their own children.” You would have thought this man didn’t have two sons and a baby daughter, fifteen hundred miles away and asking their mama right now, doubtless, When’s Papa coming home?
“Exigencies of FTL,” Demane answered. Distracted by a glimpse from the corners of his eyes, he lapsed into liturgical dialect.
“Superluminal travel is noncorporeal: a body must become light.” A tall, thin man passed by: some stranger, not the captain. “The gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them, you see, because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. But most sapiens — even those of us with fully expressed theogenetica — haven’t yet attained the psionic phylogeny necessary to sublimnify the organism.”
“No doubt.” Cumalo nodded mellowly. “No doubt. I had always maybe thought it was something like that.”
“If you say so.” The look of alarm passed; Cumalo smiled. This was familiar ground, the enamored bending the conversation back again to his amour. “I don’t see it, myself.”
Teef thrust his head between theirs, slinging his arms across their shoulders. “You two cut out all that ooga-ooga-bug-bug over here.” Which one worse: armpits or breath? Surely, the latter; but the unwashed inferno of his crotch and ass stank worse of all. “Y’all talk so a nigga could understand!”
The effect is rich, tactile, vertiginous. This is both because of the contrast between registers and because of the story’s mixing of several disparate thematic elements, like the ascension of gods being tied into the limitations of faster-than-light travel.
What’s also interesting is that Wilson lays bare a lot of the homoerotic subtext of sword and sorcery books. Even from reading the description of the first fight between Captain and Demane, it’s easy to tell that the two are lovers. Demane, an outsider from a land that’s far less heteronormative and far more respectful of women overall, finds it a constant struggle to try and keep his relationship with the Captain discreet on the caravan. Some know, like Cumalo, but such instances of tolerance are few and far between.
So: the prose is dense and full of layers worthy of unpacking. The concepts are interesting. The worldbuilding is great. So why am I not giving this a full five stars?
There are a few reasons. For one, the book is surprisingly short — The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is just over 40,000 words. Most of that is spent within the Station at Mother of Waters, with only the final section actually devoted to entering the Wildeeps, traversing the Road, and fighting the jukiere monster. Considering how much buildup the jukiere got in the opening sections of the book, I was expecting this encounter to take up a much larger portion of the book.
For another, it’s heavily implied at the end (spoilers!) that Captain dies trying to kill the jukiere monster and its mate, another jukiere about to have a litter. Captain and Demane are the only ones who have the ability to cross the dimensions lurking within the Wildeeps, so it makes sense that they’re the ones who go after the monster. But Captain’s death seems like a pretty classic example of the Tragic Queer trope, especially when you consider that two of the jukiere‘s other caravan victims are the only two merchants in an openly gay relationship. Demane’s sojourn into the Wildeeps results into his ascension as its new controller/caretaker, but is the sacrifice worth it?
Anyways, if you’re on the lookout for something with prose that swoons and dives and soars like a bird of prey, whirling at different altitudes and registers, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a good bet.