The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
“There is a principle called TSIM. Through deep time the universe complicates, all things whatsoever arising from the mother quantum, precisely so this man (writhing now on Demane’s spearpoint) might enjoy sentience, choice, and love. This is TSIM. And all who claim to follow the principle must have hands loath and cold when it comes time to kill. You’re sworn to better work than murder.”
Kai Ashante Wilson is a promising new writer whose novelette “The Devil In America” is a brutal and excoriating exploration of the legacy of slavery in the USA and the treatment of African Americans that persists to this day, all told in an innovative mix of metafiction and mythology. In The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015), his first work of longer fiction, he continues to combine the fantastic and the formally experimental into intriguing new shapes. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is firmly rooted in the tradition of Sword and Sorcery, connecting it back to the very roots of the fantasy genre, yet in its diverse cast, its command of African American dialect, its deconstruction of masculinity and its exploration of bisexuality and gay love, it could not be more attuned to the present, and lays out a blueprint of themes and ideas the genre may explore in the future.
The story focuses on Demane and the Captain, lovers and descendants of the departed gods who make a living leading a group of mercenaries guarding caravans of merchants making the perilous journey from the Station at Mother of Waters to the Kingdom of Olorum in the south. To do so they must cross the Wildeeps, a land of chaos which is haunted by a terrible necromantic monster that feeds on people. In order to protect his comrades and save the man he loves, Demane must stop holding back as he has been his whole life and must embrace his own godhood.
Wilson manages to pay tribute to the long history of Sword and Sorcery whilst adding twists and elements that are all his own. His bantering, good natured mercenaries echo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from Fritz Leiber’s classic Lankhmar stories. His vividly imagined setting, which turns out to be Earth in the far future, belongs to the Dying Earth tradition pioneered by Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. The magical system of TSIM is reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s system of chaos versus order. The Wildeeps themselves, in which alternate universes, planets and times can overlap and which one safe Road passes through, is reminiscent of the Courts of Chaos from Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. All these touches place the novella firmly within the rich and beloved tradition of Sword and Sorcery, and pay tribute to the story’s various influences.
However Wilson adds elements that make the world his own. The earliest Sword and Sorcery stories penned by Robert E. Howard had deeply problematic portrayals of race, and whilst writers like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock would write Sword and Sorcery stories that subverted Howard’s unpleasant worldview, they still tended to be set in pseudo-European settings with mostly straight white characters. Wilson populates The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps almost entirely with people of colour, with a diverse mix of races from across his transformed world. In particular the African American heritage of the mercenaries is marked by their dialogue.
While Wilson’s prose in the text of the story approaches the mythic register of Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe, he has a tremendous amount of fun having the mercenaries channel the self-aware samurai gangster personae of the Wu Tang Clan when they speak, swearing good-naturedly in dialect. This post-modern approach gives the story its own individual flavour, whilst immediately giving the reader a handle on the characters and making us think about archetypes of low fantasy in a new way. The difference between the way the mercenaries and the merchants talk really highlights the class divisions between them.
Another feature of Sword and Sorcery is its hyper-masculinity. Whilst there have been a number of notable female takes on the Sword and Sorcery hero, in particular C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories and Joanna Russ’ Alyx stories, both of which successfully offer a feminist twist on the norm, the genre is frequently defined by muscle-bound warriors like Conan or Fafhrd, all strength and violence. Even Moorcock’s Elric, a sickly sorcerer conceived as a subversion of the Conan archetype, is very much a man of war and violence. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps features two male protagonists who lead a life of violence only out of reluctance. Demane and the Captain both possess super strength and incredible fighting skills, but Demane is a sorcerer whose speciality is healing and the Captain has a hidden sensitive side, and only fights in order to protect or look out for those he cares about.
Whilst Sword and Sorcery paperbacks are frequently graced with homoerotic cover art, the text within has frequently shied away from exploring this aspect in favour of deeply sexist portrayals of women. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps deconstructs both of these tendencies. In Demane and the Captain, the novella features as its main characters a gay couple which it portrays not luridly but sensitively as two consenting adults in a loving romantic relationship. Wilson avoids stereotypes, portraying a complex relationship between equals that works because of the depth of the characters and the emotional honesty of the writing. Despite having a mostly male cast, the book also manages to upend the genre’s usual sexism, with Demane’s powerful mentor who taught him how to use magic being his Aunty.
The novella also subverts Sword and Sorcery’s glorification of violence. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is full of action scenes and battles, but rather than being portrayed as heroic or glorious struggles against evil faceless enemies they are shown in all their horror and mess, with the characters horrified by the pain and death that they are dealing out to other living people. Wilson seeks to show violent times as not exciting but tragic.
Throughout the novella, Wilson’s command of character is evident. Demane and the Captain are wonderfully complex and fully realised characters, but Wilson manages to give all of his supporting characters an impressive level of depth and memorability. Even those who only speak for a couple of lines are fully realised, individuals with their own speaking pattern and personal ticks, intimations of an internal life. This is what makes Wilson’s world feel real and lived in, and his ability to achieve this with so few words shows how powerful a medium the novella can be in the right hands. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is an innovative and exciting piece of fantasy writing, and whatever Kai Ashante Wilson does next promises to be worth reading.