Monday, March 23, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Imaro

Charles Saunders's Imaro doesn't appear in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, but I like to think that's only because the novel didn't appear until 1981, two years after the DMG was first published (though, to be fair, its titular character first appeared in Dark Fantasy in 1974 and a year later in the very first Year's Best Fantasy Stories). That's a pity, because Imaro and its sequels are remarkable books, at once thoroughly steeped in the traditions of pulp fantasy and original creations that transcend and transform the genre in ways that recall Michael Moorcock's tales of Elric. By this, I don't mean to imply any dramatic, let alone thematic, connection between the writings of these two authors. Rather, it's that both Saunders and Moorcock turn critical eyes on the tropes of pulp fantasy in ways that only writers who understand and love the genre, warts and all, could do. Saunders isn't an ignorant young Turk out to prove himself by denigrating his pulp fantasy elders, but instead a writer who clearly appreciates them, even as his own unique vision is at least in part a corrective to what he sees as their weaknesses.

Though originally billed as "The Epic Novel of a Black Tarzan," which led to the delay in its publication because of a lawsuit by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I think it's the writings of Robert E. Howard that cast the longest shadows over Imaro. Saunders's Nyumbani is a close cousin of REH's Hyborian Age, being a fantastical Africa that draws equally from history and myth to create an imaginary world that artfully mimics the depth and texture of reality. Reading through Imaro, one is immediately struck by the opportunities pulp fantasy has lost over the years by not turning its gaze more readily upon non-European settings for its inspirations. It would be a gross over-simplification to call Imaro a "black Conan" as some have done, not least because Imaro's motivations and ultimate destiny are far more inward-directed than are those of the Cimmerian. Nevertheless, it's hard not to compare him to Howard's creation, as Imaro is one of the few swords-and-sorcery characters to match -- and perhaps exceed -- the complexity of his barbarian predecessor.

Indeed, Saunders excels at writing characters who feel like people rather than caricatures and it's here, I think, where Imaro shines brightest and offers the most strident critique of the genre of which it's a part. Saunders isn't content to paint with broad strokes, particularly when it comes to entire peoples and societies. Nyumbani is not only beautifully drawn, but diverse and variegated. Its inhabitants are similarly diverse and well realized, in stark contrast to the more stylized approach favored by many other pulp fantasy tales. Reading Imaro, one is often subtly reminded of just how often even writers as talented as Howard relied upon stereotypes to do the heavy lifting in their characterization. And because the reminders are subtle, one never feels as if Imaro was written solely to criticize or make a point. The novel isn't a parody or a satire of the genre but rather an unapologetic illustration of its under-used potential, not to mention a celebration of its primal appeal.

If it sounds like I'm gushing over Imaro, it's because I am. I never read this novel or its sequels back in the day and I doubt I would have appreciated them even if I had. Having filled in this gap in my pulp fantasy education, I can't help but imagine many "what if?" scenarios in which Saunders's stories had become more widely read and influential. Had this occurred, it's possible that swords-and-sorcery might have renewed itself, remaining vital and energetic until the present day. Fortunately, the novel and its sequels have been reprinted and are available once again. Likewise, Saunders has written another novel set in Nyumbani, about the warrior-woman Dossouye, and is working on two more novels in the saga of Imaro. If you've never had the opportunity to do so before, there's no better time to delve into the adventures of Imaro than right now.

34 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to get these. Thanks for the reminder, James.

    I just ordered the first two Imaro books for the grand total of a mere $11.84. Unfortunately, the third Imaro book costs $40+.

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  2. Imaro and Imaro II are spectacular examples of the lost civilization/pulp fiction/barbarian warrior type story that D&D was based on...very overlooked! The books interested me so much in my youth, I became engrossed in African history and tales of expeditions to Africa (Mungo Park, for one). I had a lot of fun digging up some long out of print books at the local college library. Also, I ran a jungle-based D&D campaign years later based on a lot of the plot points of the series. I agree that if these books were better known (or had been in print the last 20 years) who knows what directions the game might have gone (perhaps a Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms campaign setting on the Dark Continent?)
    A couple of other things, if you like Imaro do yourself a favor and search out a lot of the uncollected Imaro tales, there are many! (His origin tale is actually in Dragon magazine of all places, although I can't remember the issue). Also, I truly hope someday Mr. Saunders finishes his tale because Imaro III is a huge disappointment, as it does not finish the story started in the first two books, and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. 20 years later and I'm still waiting for a resolution!

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  3. Hmmmm...I don't know.

    These are tales about a black warrior in a pulp Africa written by a black author who's knee-deep into black and African movements.

    And his Dossouye character was made to order by a feminist author and editor who wanted to put togheter an anthology of "tales about warrior women in a field dominated by muscular men".

    This just sends alarm bells ringing in my head. I am very weary about reading fantasy books where the author has an agenda.

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  4. I'm an Imaro/Saunders fan as well. For what it's worth, Edsan, I didn't find any politicking in this work. No more than found in Howard or Lovecraft, at least. I can't speak for Dossouye. Haven't snatched it up yet.

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  5. Edsan:
    "These are tales about a black warrior in a pulp Africa written by a black author who's knee-deep into black and African movements"

    I'd have thought that might well make for a better pulp fantasy than sappy one-worldism or maybe James Clavell style writing about an alien culture; I think the 'internal aspect' on the protagonist is important, like REH with his Scots-Irish barbarian. :)

    Of course if the character is always massacring filthy white devils to save the black maiden I'd expect that would get old fast for those of us of the paler persuasion.

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  6. These are great books, I read them when I was an undergrad.

    Beyond the reprints, I had heard a rumor that Saunders had some more Imaro books coming out. Anyone know if this is true?

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  7. Edsan:

    What's wrong with a black author writing pulp tales set in Africa? Sounds like a nice corrective to the racially backwards stuff in Howard and Lovecraft.

    Reimagining sword and sorcery pulp in a way that's true to its roots while correcting for the simplistic racial thinking is an agenda that I can get behind! :)

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  8. I'd have to agree that I don't find them particularly political. To the extent that they've got any "black identity" in them, it's just that there are no white characters. This bothers me no more than it does to see something set in a faux-medieval Europe with no black people.

    The characterization of Imaro as a "jungle hero" is stupid enough that it actually explains WHY Saunders might have felt the need to make a point of having black lead characters (hint: Imaro's tribe is clearly based on the Maasai--I've actually been to the part of Africa where they live and it's pretty much jungle-free).

    Anyhow, my understanding is that Saunders is taking advantage of print-on-demand to actually get the series finished and published. I think that's a good thing.

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  9. I just ordered the first two Imaro books for the grand total of a mere $11.84. Unfortunately, the third Imaro book costs $40+.

    I presume that's the original DAW edition? You can get the third novel much cheaper directly from the author.

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  10. (His origin tale is actually in Dragon magazine of all places, although I can't remember the issue)

    It's issue 86, from June 1984.

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  11. This just sends alarm bells ringing in my head. I am very weary about reading fantasy books where the author has an agenda.

    I think it'd be unfair to say there's an explicit agenda in the books beyond telling some remarkable swords-and-sorcery stories that draw on African rather than European myths and history. That won't be to everyone's tastes and there's no shame in that, but, speaking as someone who's very sensitive to and disdainful of the overt politicization of literature, you won't find much of it in the Imaro novels.

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  12. I can't speak for Dossouye. Haven't snatched it up yet.

    Nor I, but I plan to read it once I have finished the Imaro novels. My suspicion is that it's about as "political" as the Imaro books, which is to say not very much at all, unless one takes the fact that the protagonist is a black woman to be a political statement, which perhaps it is, but not one that I find bothersome. As I said, I'm not someone who has much liking for using literature as an explicit soapbox and I don't see Saunders as being in that mold, even if his books do widen one's perspective about African history and legend and the possibilities they hold for telling great fantasy stories.

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  13. Of course if the character is always massacring filthy white devils to save the black maiden I'd expect that would get old fast for those of us of the paler persuasion.

    Not to worry. Imaro's world is almost wholly a fantastical pre-colonial Africa. Saunders's genius, I think, is being able to present this world as rich and varied, with its own indigenous heroes and villains. Leaving aside the ancient Atlanteans (or Mizungus, as they're called in the books), there really aren't any white people in the books, in much the same way as there aren't any black people in most European-style vanilla fantasy.

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  14. Reimagining sword and sorcery pulp in a way that's true to its roots while correcting for the simplistic racial thinking is an agenda that I can get behind! :)

    Indeed and, as I noted in the original post, Saunders is a subtle writer and knowledgeable about the genre. He's not a hater of swords-and-sorcery by any means and he understands it well enough to be able to present it through another lens without either making it a parody of itself or undermining the qualities that drew us to it in the first place.

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  15. The characterization of Imaro as a "jungle hero" is stupid enough that it actually explains WHY Saunders might have felt the need to make a point of having black lead characters (hint: Imaro's tribe is clearly based on the Maasai--I've actually been to the part of Africa where they live and it's pretty much jungle-free).

    I think that's exactly right. These books are a much needed corrective to popular misconceptions and stereotypes about Africa and Africans, but they're also, first and foremost, really well told stories with complex characters and situations. Those kinds of stories are rare enough in any genre, let alone pulp fantasy. Add in the fact that they're not just rehashes of Epic Hero on an Epic Quest in Generic Fantasy World #937 and you've got something remarkable in your hands here.

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  16. I only just read the first book about 6 months ago and had the same reaction: how did I miss this all these years?

    Imaro is very, very good, 2nd generation S&S.

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  17. For what it's worth, I think Imaro II (The Quest for Cush) is even better than Imaro I.

    Those interested might want to know that Saunders revised the first two Imaro novels heavily for their edition in Night Shade books (which is now being supplemented by the "Soul & Sword" editions through Lulu.com). So the DAW volumes won't be exactly the same as the newer ones.

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  18. On the topic on of pulp and politics, even the authors of classic era had sociopolitical agendas of one sort or another, albeit generally not too strident (with the exception of HPL from time to time).

    Leigh Brackett's later Skaith novel The Ginger Star makes her disdain for hippies *hilariously* plain, for example.

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  19. "Reimagining sword and sorcery pulp in a way that's true to its roots while correcting for the simplistic racial thinking is an agenda that I can get behind!"

    Agreed! While I know that we need to keep in mind that writers like Howard and Lovecraft were products of their times and so on, it's just plain *nice* sometimes to indulge in some quality pulp fiction in which nobody is described as "apelike."

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  20. Will, there are lots of man-apes and ape-men in the Conan stories, but that's nothing to do with 'race' - certainly REH doesn't call black characters apelike! The Cimmerians themselves were 'regressed into apelike savagery' not that long ago, per the backstory (which also has white-furred arctic apemen), and Hyborean man-apes seem if anything more common in northerly climes. Howard's point concerned how close Man in general was to his ape origins, how thin the line between man and ape. I don't recall anything about whites being less apelike than blacks.

    The books sound interesting, may give them a look after I've read Jirel of Joiry.

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  21. "Will, there are lots of man-apes and ape-men in the Conan stories, but that's nothing to do with 'race' - certainly REH doesn't call black characters apelike!"

    Uh, actually he does. In "Red Shadows" for sure. I'm pretty sure in "The Moon of Skulls", too.

    And these are just a couple Solomon Kane stories I've read this week.

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  22. I haven't read these since they first came out. Your post has made me decide that it's time to hunt through my boxes of old books and find my old DAW editions and reread them.

    For those worried about agendas, the only agenda I remember the author having is "tell a good story in a different setting."

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  23. Has anyone read the version of Imaro with "The Slaves of the Giant-Kings?" I read on wikipedia that this has been excised from the current version because of parallels to the events in Rwanda of 1994. That disappoints me-- there are some things about that conflict that perhaps can only be said in fiction. The fact that the story was written some 10+ years before the events that they seem to resemble, would seem to make any conclusions all the more powerful.

    Anyway, I'm really glad to know about these books! The only time in my life when I didn't have anything to do with D&D was when I lived in East Africa-- it seemed redundant-- so it's really exciting to see these two interests of mine intersecting.

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  24. I've heard mentioned of this series before and like others, would like to thank you for the reminder. Ordered from Amazon.

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  26. @ Brian: Mr Saunders wrote about his reasons for this decision here.

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  27. Will:
    "Uh, actually he does. In "Red Shadows" for sure. I'm pretty sure in "The Moon of Skulls", too.

    And these are just a couple Solomon Kane stories I've read this week."

    I was referring exclusively to the Conan stories, since I haven't read Solomon Kane.

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  28. Max:
    "@ Brian: Mr Saunders wrote about his reasons for this decision here."

    Interesting moral dilemma - author writes fiction where fictionalised group A massacres group B, and this is approved of by the authorial voice, only for real-world group A to massacre group B on a much larger scale. I guess early 20th century pulp fiction authors who wrote about international cabals of sinister Jews, against whom their hero battles, may have felt similarly when they heard of the Nazi Holocaust.

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  29. I was referring exclusively to the Conan stories, since I haven't read Solomon Kane.

    Heve you read the unedited Howard stories, or are you familiar with conan through the Lancer publications edited by de Camp and Carter? The Lancer books tend to downplay and edit out the worst of Howard's racism.

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  30. I'd rather not drag this down to the racism argument, but read the Conan story, "The Man-Eaters of Zamboula" for the worst of Howard's Africans = Apes.

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  31. I've read most of the REH originals, in the 'Fantasy Masterworks' series. I've come across lots of man-apes, and the story where Conan treacherously massacres allied blacks to get hold of the captive white girl, but nothing about blacks being apelike.

    From what I could see REH's worldview was a cyclical one where man arises from the apes, founds civilisations, becomes degenerate, and regresses to apelike state before the cycle begins again.

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  32. Wow, I couldn't disagree more with the assessment you give of the Imaro books and Saunders. I read them (after the fact) from the new Nightshade reprints, and I barely got through them, honestly. I thought his agenda was rather ham-handed, Imaro was a flat, unlikeable, cardboard character (yes, even compared to Conan) and the entire series felt like a cheap excuse for Saunders to show off the fact that he'd done some research on anthropology in Africa. The stories themselves were always second-place to showcasing the setting. Some of them read more like mini-ethnologues rather than fantasy stories.

    I mean, they weren't terrible per se, but I found more and more as I read them that the fact that they never sold very well was readily apparent from the quality of the writing, not from mishandling of the text by the publisher, as hinted in the introduction.

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  33. I disagree strongly with Joshua on his assessment of the books, though it's important to realize that Joshua comes from a conservative Mormon background while I'm nonreligious, so we have pretty different viewpoints.

    I disagree with the "ethnologue" comment in particular - the cultures are just fleshed out enough for the reader to accept them as believable.

    One of the things I liked the most about this book was the dimensionality of the secondary characters, as well as the importance of human groups. Most fantasy protagonists are loners, but Imaro is a much more believable loner because his story relies so much on the relationships between different human tribes.

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