ABENGONI Review: Thoughts on Racial Reconciliation through Fantasy

Abengoni:  First Calling

Author – Charles Saunders

Year – 2014

Publisher – MVMedia

“Thoughts on Racial Reconciliation through Fantasy” 

I remember when I first heard about ABENGONI being an upcoming novel on Facebook.  To be quite frank, I was ecstatic hearing of this news.  The last high fantasy novel that I had read that had even the slightest inkling of “color” in it was in David Anthony Durham’s ACACIA series.  And that trilogy filled me up with such hope that I was like a starving child biting at the bit to read ABENGONI.  Not to mention that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Saunder’s IMARO series. So it was that I sat on the edge of my seat ready for this book to drop.  To my recollection, the book was in my hands a bit before Thanksgiving so it felt like a pretty good way to start off the Holiday Season.

In my anticipation to read the book, I looked in to some of Saunders’ thoughts and motivations for writing ABENGONI.  What struck me the most was the idea that he was creating this alternate African landscape with the idea of racial reconciliation in mind.  What would our world look like if Western and African culture had met in the bonds of friendship and equality as opposed to possession and oppression?  What kind of world would we be fortunate enough to exist in if color was the least of our concerns?  So upon discovering this nugget of an idea was at the core of ABENGONI, I became even more excited.

The book starts off with an event called First Calling, which is essentially a rain ritual to the gods.  We get our first glimpses of the Matile Mala Empire and its capital of Khambawe.  The Matile Mala Empire strikes me as something that draws influence from the kingdoms of Ghana, Egypt and Rome.  The Empire is very much like the latter in that it is in a state of decline.  What had once been a continent sprawling kingdom is now holding on to the last dregs of its existence.  The capital is besieged by inner-city gangs called tsotsis that ruthlessly rule the night.  Their once vast territory is besieged on its borders by former slaves turned vengeful enemies called Thabas.  Island enemies from a long ago civil war still bear a great deal of enmity for them.  To top it all, the top two officials of the Empire are locked in a petty, bitter rivalry.  Things aren’t exactly looking up.

Here we also get our glimpse of Tiyana, one of the main focal points of the novel.  She is a young woman who carries herself with a pride and dignity that you can just feel exude off of the page.  Saunders doesn’t shove it in your face that this is a strong, young woman.  You just get it and even better, he manages to still give her vulnerabilities to tread her away from that ever present Mary Sue territory.  Personally, I feel that she is the most well-developed and well-rounded character throughout the entire novel.

There are some other interesting characters in the novel of course.  You have Jass Mofo and Jass Imbiah who both make for intimidating and interesting antagonists.  Kalisha seems to be on the verge of a big development at the end of the novel.  She goes from a gang spy to what seems to be a potential hero.  I’m intrigued to see where the next book takes her.  Speaking of Kalisha, that brings me to one of the larger themes in the novel…

Religion and the role it plays in society has a large part to do with what happens in the novel.  Like the great myths of old, the gods in this world are present and described in wild, immense fashion.  From the water goddess Nama-Kwah to the swampy realm of the spider god Legaba to the terrifying desert of Almovaar.  These gods manifest themselves to their believers and make physical changes in the world.  At the start of the novel you learn that the Jagasti (the Matile Mala pantheon) once very much interacted with their believers but because of a catastrophic war they have pulled back.  They believed they were causing more harm than good so they all agreed (with the exception of Legaba) to pull back. So at the beginning of the novel we’re dealing with a people disillusioned with their gods because they no longer see them as manifest in their lives.  How many people do we know in our own lives who constantly have to make every minute detail of their lives into a manifestation of the divine?  I think Saunders is making a statement here on how fragile belief can be.

So in comes the god Almovaar and his believers from Cym Dinath (think medieval Europe).  Almovaar’s primary disciple is the Seer, Kyroun.   Now on a character level, I like Kyroun.  He’s smart, brave and wise enough to know when to lead from behind.  But on a thematic level, I find myself troubled with him.  This is where I think Saunders shows his true depth as a writer.  So you have Kyroun and his followers coming to the Matile Mala Empire with their new god and new magic that ultimately saves Khambawe from a terrible disaster.  Does that not just scream the white savior complex?  The black gods have ran away and here comes the white god to save the day.  If this was an average writer, my blood would have boiled by that point in the story.   But Saunders isn’t average and he takes this complex and turns it on its head.

Yes, Kyroun and his Believers arrive in the nick of time to save the Matile Mala Empire.  Yes, their god Almovaar invigorates the Matile with new magic and power.  Yes, accepting this new religion starts to send the Empire back into what seems to be a new age of restoration.  But it comes with an exacting and bloody price.  It is a price that Saunders hangs over your head as a mystery till the end of the novel, but when you receive it then it becomes all too clear what he was doing.  The entire arrival, acceptance, and assimilation of the Believers is a subtle commentary on the price of bending too far when encountering other cultures.  How many times have we seen this throughout history?  Look at how Christianity was forced on so much of the world in the so-called name of friendship.  Kyroun comes as a friend, but he brings a fearsomely dark thing with him.  There’s a price for reconciliation and it has come with the Matile losing some part of themselves.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that.  When Saunders talked of reconciliation I expected some overly positive joining of cultures.  But I should have known better.  Saunders wisely decides to approach such a joining with the understanding that “globalization” isn’t always a good thing and isn’t always overflowing with benefits for both sides.  I still think in the midst of that he achieves his theme of reconciliation in that the racial differences between characters in this story are the least of their problems.  The characters notice their physical differences, but nothing derogatory rises from it.  It is simply just a difference and they move on.

So the themes and the setting of this novel are absolutely beautifully done.  I can see these places Saunders described as if I was walking through the streets and sailing on the oceans.  And you can tell he had passion for describing these beautiful landscapes and giving you a full, in-depth history of the land he was taking you to.  And his physical descriptions of characters allowed you to solidly envision them in a three-dimensional way.  Which made the violence in the novel all the more harsh and bloody because each of those characters felt so much like living, breathing people.  I was made to care about the city that the islanders trampled through.  I was made to care about the plight of the people on the island as they fought off bloodthirsty plants.  I cared about even about the terrors and horrors that befell the tsotsis.

But despite being made to care so much, there were times when I think the characters could have been developed more through the novel.   Outside of Tiyana, I didn’t feel like anyone had really changed or progressed from wherever their first introductions was.  Gebrem remained the stoic elder.  Kyroun remained the wise man.  Mofo remained the cruel, seemingly unstoppable one.  No one seemed to make any real progression.  I think that comes as a consequence of having so much time invested in the geography and landscape.  It didn’t detract too terribly from my enjoyment of the novel as even stagnant, these were some interesting characters.  Plus it’s the first book and I’m sure the next one will start to become more character focused with all of the pieces having now been put into play.

Overall, ABENGONI was worth the wait and definitely served as that breath of fresh air I so need when it comes to reading high fantasy.  Too often you’re forced to tackle things from a European perspective and any time someone decides to walk another cultural path in that genre you can count me in.  On principle, I say bravo to Mr. Saunders for taking a chance and making it work.

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