Written by: Charles R. Saunders
Published by: Night Shade Books

I wandered the halls of the World Fantasy Convention 2006, telling Jeremy Lassen of Night Shade Books of my latest collaboration project. It began after I told author Steven L. Shrewsbury about the sword and sorcery tales I had written featuring an African warrior. He immediately bought one of the stories for a project he was working on and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating on a novel with a similar premise. I went on to tell Jeremy about how I enjoyed barbarian/warrior tales, but never read any set in ancient Africa. Nothing I could relate to.

That was when Jeremy handed me Imaro by Charles R. Saunders.

Saunders, a contemporary of Karl Edward Wagner, Charles de Lint, L. Sprague de Camp, is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as new readers are discovering his signature creation. Imaro is divided into two parts, named after the communities he hopes to be a part of. The first is “The Illyassai” which details Imaro’s origins and being raised to adolescence. His mother is forced to abandon him, but not before he begins the mafundishu-ya-muran, the warrior training of the tribe. Imaro, unfortunately, was ever the outcast son of the Ilyassai people, suffering years of abuse at their hands. Never truly one of them, eventually has to go his own way, when, like his mother, he exposes Chitendu a sorcerer whose evil infects the tribe.

The second is “The Haramia” follows Imaro’s journey with a band of thieves called the Haramia. After being adopted into a new tribe, Imaro is kidnapped by and then becomes part of the Haramia. Under Imaro’s leadership, they become such a threat that two kingdoms, Azania and Zanj, unite to destroy them. This doesn’t include the supernatural threats encountered along the way.

“Imaro,” Msuli said softly, “No man should be alone.”

Imaro ultimately remains always the outsider in search of a people, a tribe, a community to call his own; especially ironic considering that he has always been abandoned by tribe and family. Imaro remains distrustful of community, but always seeking it. Unfortunately, Death seems to be the only companion willing to follow him around. The themes of the book struck close to home, as they are so common in my own writing. Imaro is a tale of the search for identity, acceptance, and making your own sense of family. It is also the tale of the seriousness of the steps of discipleship and what it’ll cost.

Much like Imaro’s experience with the Haramia, discipleship is journey from slavery (from this world’s systems, notions of individualism, self-sufficiency, empire) to freedom (to be fully human, living as we were meant to live). The spiritual seeker who has made the decision to become free has to start a new life, a new journey – to find a new way to understand yourself, to treat others, and to see the world. It begins with what some call the rite of conversion, a public profession of faith, as they begin their arduous journey. The spiritual formation that molds us takes time.

Discipleship is about deepening your walk in spiritual maturity, best done as a part of the community as the journey to freedom is not one easily made alone. It helps to have a network of believers from mentors to more formal settings. At each leg of the journey, fugitives from slavery, literal and figurative, must decide whether or not to move on to the next stage.

In a lot of ways, Imaro’s tale reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s The Elric Saga. Saunders is pure griot, a storyteller, of the first order. In a genre where black people, with few exceptions, have been left out or depicted in racist or stereotypic ways in genre fiction, Saunders is a breath of fresh air: an African hero written by an African American. This is quite the legacy to try and follow and I can’t wait to read Imaro 2 : The Quest for Cush.