Monday, August 8, 2011

Imaro by Charles Saunders, a review

Charles Saunders once stated that the impetus behind Imaro (the eponymous protagonist of his 1980 novel Imaro) was a simple urge to create a character who could kick Tarzan’s ass.

I’m not so sure he succeeded.

First, I’m not entirely convinced Imaro could kick Tarzan’s ass. Second (and more to the point), this bout isn't fought with the same rules and doesn't share a common ring. Imaro is a very different type of work than Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tales of the jungle hero, or Robert E. Howard’s Conan, the other character with whom he is frequently compared. While Imaro is a collection of short stories originally published in magazines like Night Voyages and Dragonbane, Saunders attempts something quite different than Howard’s picaresque tales of Conan, or the unending Tarzan sequels Burroughs would go on to write. Imaro provides a clear origin story that Howard never penned for Conan. It also contains the first rumbles of a coming clash of ancient gods, and drops hints that Imaro will be a key player in a world-shaking series of future events. As a result, Imaro straddles the two opposing camps of swords and sorcery and epic fantasy. While it clearly has more in common with the former, in Imaro you can see the beginnings of a mythic tale spanning several books. Saunders continues Imaro’s story in works like Imaro II: The Quest for Cush and Imaro III: The Trail of Bohu, and in 2009 he wrote the concluding volume The Naama War.

By combining swords and sorcery with epic fantasy and placing in the action in the relatively unexplored territory of (an alternate) Africa, with Imaro Saunders created something unique, fun, and well-worth reading. In the rarefied air at the top of the swords and sorcery genre you’ll find writers like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. These guys were so good they spawned legions of barbaric imitators—your Braks and your Thongors, and Amalric the Mangod. Based on my early exposure to the series I would say that Imaro falls somewhere in the middle or upper-third of this pack. Imaro is certainly better written and far more original than Carter’s Amalric and a lot of other short S&S works I’ve read over the years. Though it’s not at the level of a Howard or a Leiber, how many other works are, frankly? If you like swords and sorcery, you’ll like Imaro. I did.

Imaro is a collection of five short stories including “Turkhana Knives,” “The Place of Stones,” “Slaves of the Giant Kings,” “Horror in the Black Hills,” and “The City of Madness.” Saunders borrows a Hyborian Age conceit and sets the action in an alternate Africa named Nyumbani. By placing the stories on a fictitious yet familiar continent Saunders can indulge his fantastic side and do some culture building, introducing us to peoples and landscapes at once familiar and alien (as Saunders says on his blog, Nyumbani was constructed in the appropriate Howardian manner: take the best and most interesting of a variety of cultures and civilizations, mix ‘em together, full speed ahead, and damn the chronological contractions!)

Saunders does a fine job building Nyumbani and its cultures, including the proud warrior tribe of Ilyassai among which Imaro is raised. Saunders provides a glossary at the back so we can reference terms like arem, a six to seven foot spear of half wood, half edged iron, and olmaiyo, the ritual lion hunt that marks the final test of manhood for Ilyassai youth. Imaro mostly mixes it up with human warriors and wild animals but also encounters magic, battling sorcerers and a handful of monsters.

My copy of Imaro is marred by a rather unfortunate cover which de-emphasizes Imaro as black (the guy on the cover could pass as a tan Tarzan) and depicts him fighting some ridiculous hippo-man. I’d like to point out to my buddy Scott (who spent most of last weekend ribbing me with ridiculous questions about the breeding habits of hippo-men, and so on) as well as any other potential readers who might be turned off by the cover that Imaro is entirely hippo-man free. Imaro does fight a creature described as having vaguely hippo-like jaws, but that’s it.

It’s impossible not to get behind Imaro. He’s the offspring of his mother, Katisa, and a unknown stranger from the outside the tribe, a mating which the Ilyassai consider taboo. Katisa accepts exile for breaking tribal law in exchange for the promise that the rest of the Ilyassai will raise Imaro as one of their own. They renege. From his earliest days Imaro is labeled an outcast, an “other” who is bullied and betrayed at every turn. As a result he rarely laughs or expresses affection, even as he matures into a muscled warrior and the mightiest man among the Ilyassai. Fueled by hate and suspicion of his fellow man, Imaro is like a volcano, apt to erupt into violence at the slightest provocation.

But there is more to Imaro than just a bloodthirsty warrior. I was deeply moved by a scene at the end of book two (“The Place of Stones”) in which Imaro rejects a sincere offer to rejoin his old tribe. Saunders skillfully walks a tightrope with Imaro: Will he tread the path of isolation and darkness, forever looking over his shoulder at the awful events of his childhood, or will he accept friendship and companionship and overcome his dark past to become a man? I won’t reveal the answer here, though I will say that Imaro does not have a clear resolution to the question, although it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel.

So back to the most important question: Could Imaro kick Tarzan (and Conan’s) asses? From what I’ve read he’s certainly their equal physically and perhaps is even their superior. Imaro has prodigious strength and speed. He also has an iron constitution and is capable of calling on an inner reserve that allows him to fight when bloodied and exhausted. The Navy Seals complete hell week to allow them to push their bodies equal or beyond any stresses they’ll see in the field; Imaro is able to draw upon mafundishu-ya-muran, a period of warrior training lasting from age five to late adolescence in which Ilyassai boys are taken from their families to undergo a course of brutal Spartan-like training that transforms them into warriors.

So yeah, Imaro is badass, though not invincible. While he’d probably whip up on Tarzan, Conan armed with a sword would cut Saunders’ hero to ribbons, in my opinion (Imaro's fighting style is savage, but rather unskilled). But that said, Imaro is pretty kick ass and I’m looking forward to tracking down a copy of The Quest for Cush.


Joe G Kushner said...

I enjoyed the short stories more than the later more collected and more epic material. It would however, make some great RPGing material. Some interesting takes on the magic in that setting.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Thansk Brian, this has been on the "Get" pile for awhile now.

Falze said...

I’m looking forward to tracking down a copy of The Quest for Cush.

$8 with free shipping at Ebay. Pummeled copies at Amazon starting at about $4, $6 for decent ones :)

Andy said...

I think the second book is even better.

Anonymous said...

no white men or kind of european inspired civilizations here? by the way hippo men are cool...


Brian Murphy said...

Maybe I was too hard on the hippo men...

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Imaro fan that I am, my money's still on Tarzan.