08 September 2010

Book review: Imaro: The Trail of Bohu

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu
Charles R. Saunders (Sword and Soul Media, 2009)

I will be presenting a review of Imaro: The Naama War for Black Gate either this week or next, but it wouldn’t feel right to jump to that book without reviewing its predecessor, Imaro: The Trail of Bohu. I reviewed the second Imaro book at Black Gate, and since Bill Ward has already offered a fine review of Imaro: The Trail of Bohu at the site, I’m offering up my humble look at the third on my personal site. I’ve got to post some original things here, right?

Charles Saunders’s third book about the Ilyassi sword-and-sorcery hero Imaro (and the first written specifically as a novel, instead of collecting previously printed stories and novellas) was first published from DAW as Imaro 3: The Trail of Bohu. Here it is now, in a revised version, from print-on-demand. Unfortunately, this has been the way of the Imaro series; although superb work with a huge impact on modern sword-and-sorcery writing with the way it made the genre racially inclusive, Imaro has never had good fortune in the publishing industry, where snafus and marketing messes have made the hero’s journey an arduous one.

Imaro may not be getting out to the masses, but at least he is getting out.

The third novel ups the stakes to involve the entire continent of Nyumbani in a titanic struggle, but Saunders also keeps the battle on a personal level for Imaro. The mysterious villain Bohu and Imaro are linked not only through a standard revenge story, but through the way they represent the greater forces aligned for the battle, the opposing gods known as the Cloud Striders and the Mashataan. The book keeps this balance of epic and intimate perfectly to make for constantly sweeping reading, even though the conclusion . . . well, I’ll get to that later.

The Trail of Bohu opens with the Erriten, the high sorcerers of kingdom of Naama, preparing their battle against the other nations of the continent of Nyumbani (Saunders’s fantasy land based on historical Africa) at the behest of their gods, the Mashataan. They plan to strike at the heart of the kingdom of Cush, where our hero Imaro, the Ilyassi warrior, arrived at the end of the last book. Imaro has a destiny to play in chephet, the balance between the gods, and any plans the Erriten have must take account of the powerful warrior.

We then catch up with Imaro in the five years that have passed since the end of the last book. He’s working in the great Cushite city of Meroe as a blacksmith, but he yearns for action against the Naamans in the South. This has started to drive a wedge between him and his mate, Tanisha, especially as he wants his five-year-old son Kilewo to start the training of a warrior.

Suddenly, Kilewo and Tanisha are brutally murdered through some magic of the Erriten, and the enraged Imaro is accused of the crime and imprisoned. This is an enormously gutsy move for the story, especially after the development of Tanisha in The Quest for Cush; it sends a enormous jolt through the reader.

But there is a greater game than the slaughter of Imaro’s family occurring, as the ruler of Cush, the Kandisa, reveals to him in a secret meeting. Chephet has been upset; the Erriten have an equivalent of Imaro, a force that upsets magic, and Kandisa gives this creature the name “Bohu.” It is Bohu who killed Imaro’s family. Kandisa frees Imaro to go after Bohu, and the wise dwarf Pomphis goes with him. The fate of the continent now rests on Imaro’s vengeance.

The action follows Imaro on a voyage along the East Coast on the ship of his friend, the Zanjian captain Rabir, as chaos explodes along the shores from the vile machinations of Bohu. Bohu always keeps ahead of them, spreading destruction, but Imaro can track him using a pair of bracelets that the Kandisa gifted to him.

After a mutiny aboard Rabir’s ship, Imaro continues with only Rabir and Pomphis as companions. They enter Kitwana, a kingdom recently invaded by the Naama, and join with the exiled king Manjun, whose life Pomphis once save. Meanwhile, the Kandisa begins a diplomatic tour to bring the other kingdoms of Nyumbani together for the coming battle with Naama, and Bohu’s sprague of evil and chaos becomes greater and greater.

The story keeps the action and danger at a constant roil. The beast-men, izingogo, are fierce opponents and make for a thrilling action scene when they descend on Majnun and his men. Another scene where the walkingdead cling like barnacles to the bottom of Rabir’s ship and them swam onto is with is a superb piece of dark sword-and-sorcery mayhem (and the “let’s hide it out in the basement” idea is a nice nod to the original Night of the Living Dead).

But aside from the action, Saunders makes sure that another, more sinister threat faces his hero. Imaro must confront distrust among most people that he meets. He is the center of the disasters that beset Nyumabni, so men who should be his allies are quick to turn against him, which keeps a boiling tension going even with there is no overt physical threats.

The world of Nyumbani becomes more alive and real a place than ever; in some ways, The Trail of Bohu is akin to Robert E. Howard’s sole Conan novel, The Hour of Dragon. Both send their heroes in journeys to many different corners of their continent, giving the reader a sense of the breadth of the author’s conception. Like the best of sword-and-sorcery, The Trail of Bohu combines a sense of historical realism—this seems like an Africa that could have existed in the pre-colonial days—and logical anthropology and mixes it with the right dose of action and sinister magic. Although Saunders provides a glossary for some of his Nyumbani terms at the end, readers won’t need them; the sense they develop through context, as well as the fitness of the sound of the words, make them easy to understand.

Bohu himself (itself?) is an intriguing creation. He hardly ever appears on the page, and Imaro chases the after-affects of his doings rather than finding the villain himself. But he comes as a superb sinister force, a “Sauron” figure who doesn’t need to appear at all to seem terrifying. His powers grow throughout the pursuit, and he goes from a sneaky assassin to a creature wielding kingdom-shattering nightmare powers.

However . . . well, we have to deal with this eventually. . . .

In the last quarter of the book, Saunders throws in a radical twist needed to get a book toward an exciting conclusion. It’s usually at this point in many average books—not bad, but not great—that the story slides into mediocrity because all the ideas are exhausted and the author seems tired. Saunders avoids this problem. Imaro discovers a shock about his past in the country of Amanyani (called “Zimbabwe” in the original publication but changed because of the unfortunate tragedies in the real-world country of that name), and this surprise sheds light on his destiny and his role in the battle between the Cloud Striders and the Mashataan.

It’s especially fortuitous to have such a revelation near the finale, because The Trail of Bohu doesn’t really have a finale; not an action climax, at least. It sets up for a conclusion in the sequel, Imaro: The Naama War, and that unfortunately took a long time getting to us. Nearly a quarter of a century. Saunders explains the inconclusive nature of The Trail of Bohu: “[The Naama War was meant to answer the questions and tie together the threads spun in the previous three novels about Imaro. . . . For readers of those earlier volumes, the questions were left unanswered, and the threads dangled without resolution, because this book was not published when it first was written years ago.”

There is a sense of disappointment about the way Imaro: The Trail of Bohu winds up with the great battle only starting. The title proves accurate, as we and Imaro only follow the trail of the mystery villain, and the great confrontation never comes. That Saunders still manages to make it an interesting conclusion through deepening the main character’s mythology is a great compliment to his storytelling talents. However, until The Naama War was finally let out of publishing limbo last year, The Trail of Bohu was a story bound to end with some frustration. But no more . . . because Imaro: The Naama War is here at last, and I’ll be reporting on that soon.

And, dangling conclusion aside, Imaro: The Trail of Bohu, is top-flight sword-and-sorcery and shows why Saunders is one of the great modern talents in the genre.

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu is available here through print-on-demand.