Thursday, August 09, 2007

By Charles Saunders

I used to think of Sword & Sorcery as the province of the Big Three: Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. After reading Imaro I may have to make that the Big Four.

Back in the 1970s Charles Saunders was a devoted fan of science fiction and fantasy, especially the swashbuckling adventures of Tarzan, Conan, and other larger-than-life heroes. However, he was very frustrated by the lack of black heroes. SF and Fantasy were lily white and Saunders was a black man who felt rather isolated in fandom. The pulp-era in particular abounded in casual racism. So Saunders set out to do something about it. He created his own hero: Imaro.

The Imaro stories took off and eventually DAW Books agreed to a series of Imaro paperbacks. Owing to missteps by DAW and long intervals between the books, they failed commercially but have remained a devoted following among Sword & Sorcery cognoscenti. Reviving the stories became problematic after certain events in Africa rendered some critical plot points uncomfortably close to a headline. Eventually, after encouragement by the well-known Australian fan Ben Szumskyj, Saunders replaced the troublesome tales with new works and Night Shade Books brought Imaro into the 21st century.

The result is not merely an Afrocentric Conan. Imaro has a backstory that is essential to his growth as a character. As a boy his mother is exiled and he never knows his father. He is barely tolerated by his tribe. Although he excels in his prowess as a warrior, it is never good enough. When he finally reaches manhood, he is framed as a coward and forced to flee his own people. In the end Imaro only finds acceptance among the outlaws of the borderlands.

In other hands this might be Black Caesar, but Imaro is persecuted by a mysterious cabal of evil wizards who want him destroyed for mysterious reasons. Saunders is a fantasy writer and his tales should appeal to all Sword & Sorcery fans. The Imaro tales are as firmly rooted in African legend and history as Tolkein’s work is in European myth. It makes for a distinctive setting that many readers will not have seen before. I strongly recommend Imaro and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series from Night Shade.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Now you've got me curious about that "close to a headline" comment.

Dave Hardy said...

In the introdcution Saunders talks about it. There was a story, "Slaves to the Giant Kings", about a tribe of short, squat folk that was oppressed by a tribe of tall skinnies. With Imaro's help the shorties overthrow the skinnies in a big bloodbath. It all takes place in a mythical kingdom called "Ruanda". Well, jump to 1994, Saunders realizes his story makes his skin crawl. I don't believe the story advocated genocide in any way, but it was a tale of racial animosity set in a country that had a real racial animosity. Very tricky ground for an author.

I haven't read the original

PaulMc said...

Another thing I noted when reading "Slaves to the Giant Kings" was that during the 'bloodbath', there was some very brutal mutilation. The Giants are brought down by having their legs hacked off. I sometimes wonder if that 'personal level' details, rather than a bigger picture, disturbed Saunders more. *That* in particular seemed to reflect the machete attacks and other atrocities of the real thing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, I can see where the parallels would be upsetting. I have not read this story. I checked out nightshade. So far they've only released the first two books, which I've read. I would love to see later stuff in the series though, and the collected shorts.