Adam's Reviews > Imaro

Imaro by Charles R. Saunders
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it was ok
bookshelves: fantasy, urbana-library, weird, africa

Fantasy is practically synonymous with its typical medieval European setting, with a lot of exoticized external cultures. That’s a shame, because that terrain has nearly lost its power to excite our imaginations, and requires a fair bit of talent to pull off in a way that feels creative at this point. Nor does the faux-historical Eurocentric worldview the geography invokes hold up in a world with a very different cultural and political landscape and a much more substantial exposure to non-Western cultures.

I’m looking forward to exploring non-Western setting fantasy more in general (though that enthusiasm is a bit tempered now tbh) but I was especially excited to read Imaro for a few reasons. Coming out of Conan the Barbarian, which has tremendously dull writing as well as a numbingly familiar, and familiarly racist, world, I was hoping the fresh perspective, particularly switching to the other end of Howard’s exoticism gradient, would pay off in a more interesting book. I was also particularly excited when I found out Imaro is set in East Africa. I spent a term studying and travelling in Tanzania, and it’s got SO INCREDIBLY MUCH to offer as a fantasy setting. There is such a huge amount of geographic and cultural diversity, fascinating intersections of historical forces, and the landscapes are so vast and evocative and packed the gills with life and danger. I don’t know if I’m the person to do it but it’s so potent in my imagination that I kinda wanna try it at some point. In any case, I was hoping Imaro would cash in on that promise.

Saunders takes a pretty straightforward approach to adapting Africa to his fantasy world—about as straightforward as Conan’s pre-historic Europe, though he adds a lot more cultural signifiers. Imaro is Maasai, though he more or less speaks Swahili (a definite historical anachronism, but I guess we can let that slide). This is interesting because I kind of actually still remember how to speak Swahili. A lot of the words did more to remind me of my intro to Swahili class than to evoke a distant time and place. I guess that’s not a common reader experience now, and probably was less so in the ‘80s.

The first chapter had me relatively excited. It has a lot of what are basically ethnographic notes woven into the narration, and while that’s not an ideal way to present a culture, they sell Imaro’s experience as a unique and different childhood, dealing with some universal ideas through a very different cultural lens. There was even a pretty emotional scene, when he is being treated really unfairly by his peers.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t last for long. Saunders describes some animals in passing, and Imaro fights a leopard and a lion, but otherwise the landscape is barely present in the story. It’s mentioned in passing, but it quickly becomes clear that Saunders doesn’t intend to use much of the potential his setting offers.

While Imaro himself is superficially a morally complex character, with hate and bitterness his main motivations throughout the story, often acting in spite (though generally in ways that still make him seem sympathetic), he’s also fair and honorable in ways that make him stand out from his milieu. The world, on the other hand, has no moral nuance. Across all the varied cultures and organizations that Imaro deals with, he is incessantly persecuted by a single race of deities, described in the glossary as “Demon Gods […] inimical to the people of Nyumbani.” This animosity is presumably due to Imaro’s ancestry, which ties him to the “benign” Cloud Striders. None of this has the scent of African folklore or even the slight Weird Horror mystery of Conan’s world. It feels very artificial, a device Saunders uses to constantly move Imaro’s goalposts and keep the story going. Combined with the way the setting is handled,, it feels like Saunders has very little of the world imagined beyond what’s immediately ahead of his characters.

In practice, this turns out to mean that whenever Imaro crushes his enemies with his iron thews and indomitable will, there’s another, a man jealous of his strength and what it has won him and eager to deal with demons to take him down a peg. It’s a tremendously boring cycle of violence, and it reduces every character’s motivations to revenge, jealousy, and hate. Whatever emotional depth Imaro had to start with wears off quickly, and his internal life comes down to marshalling his hate and gritting his teeth and then winning.

The whole thing is repetitive and shallow and dull, and the prose is bad and not particularly smooth or quick, even. Despite the strength of the premise, Imaro feels more even than most Western fantasy books like something a Western fantasy nerd would write, a novice’s attempt at reproducing something that wasn’t all that good in the first place (though Imaro is as good as or better than Conan, still). It loses some of the racist worldview, though it doesn’t gain much in its place, and that doesn’t necessarily make it very progressive. It’s still a bald-faced wish-fulfillment fantasy, it just isn’t the fantasy of a proto-Nazi. Imaro literally has a sex slave sneak into his tent and fuck him just cuz he is who he is. Which is the sort of thing you’d write to make fun of this genre and its authors, but it’s pretty much just there in exactly the form your mockery might take.
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2015 – Shelved
August 15, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 22, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy
March 28, 2016 – Started Reading
April 3, 2016 – Finished Reading
January 29, 2017 – Shelved as: urbana-library
April 30, 2017 – Shelved as: weird
April 5, 2018 – Shelved as: africa

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