Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are some the most low-quality material ever to find the light of day in publishing. His imagination capturing something, however, the brawny Cimmerian helped spawn the sword & sorcery sub-genre, and the myriad of stories (low quality and otherwise) that have appeared since. And they keep appearing. One of the latest is Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015). A full indication that sword & sorcery has matured significantly in the century since Conan, Howard would roll in the grave if he knew of Wilson’ tale.
The Captain and his crew of mercenaries have been hired to guard a merchant caravan on its long journey to the city of Olorum. Danger and peril awaiting at every step, their trek takes them through deserts and cities, and the mysterious jungles of the Wildeeps. Indefatigable, the Captain runs at the head of the caravan by day, fights mock battles with his crew by evening, and stands guard by night. Seemingly impenetrable in person, interacting with him is difficult, something the crew’s sorcerer, a foreigner named Demane, has trouble with. But cooperation between the two is necessary if the caravan is to arrive at its destination. Beset by bandits, enduring the scorn of the merchants, and dealing with the exigencies of life on the road, the Captain, Demane, and the rest of the crew must work together if they are to survive the trek and the Wildeeps.
The roots of Sorcerer of the Wildeeps run deep. Clearly a take on Conan the Barbarian, its lands are wild, and filled with outlaws and fanged creatures. The stone-walled cities are rough, but a welcome break from the road—their bordellos, watering holes, and other entertainments offering respite for the weary traveler. And always on the fringes of local legend, mysteries of magic and treasure await the brave hero with sword at ready. But where Howard’s stories are limited to this outlay, Wilson adds an entirely new dynamic to the milieu. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps digs beneath the detached masculine façade of strength and intelligence to render its central character human. For his personal struggles with direction, history, and inner-self, Demane is far more intimate a warrior than Conan.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a very male story. But where this means courage, strength, power, dominance, codes of honor, etc. in most sword & sorcery, Wilson opts to swim in different (and refreshing) thematic waters. Repressed male emotion, African American masculinity (and its associations with violence), homo-eroticism and phobia in an all-male group, unrequited love, male bonding, and other less discussed aspects of manhood in s&s bubble beneath the story of Demane. His tale following a rather traditional arc in terms of plot, the foundation material to which it is pinned is anything-but.
The prose, while occasionally affected, cuts like a knife. Unlike Robert E. Howard, Wilson understands the craft of writing (but does need to learn how to consistently close out chapters). The fighting and violence are rendered in visceral terms, even as the interaction of the mercenaries, Demane’s personal struggles, and the setting take on hues of realism with equal grit. The cherry on top, however, may be the voices captured among the crew of mercenaries. Like Wilson’s superb novelette “The Devil in America,” there are demotics that strongly echo facets of African American culture in the US. While some readers may be turned off by intrusions of ghetto slang, as infrequent as they are, it’s quite possible, even preferable to view Wilson’s inclusion of these voices as not only direct address to a specific audience, but also a style variation wholly complementary to setting and character map.
In the end, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a novel intelligently utilizing the central tropes of sword & sorcery to tell a deeper story of a man and the plight of a band of brothers, all in a singularly African American tone that fills out and redresses the whole for both examination and enjoyment. Published by Tor.com, plot is naturally key to the novel. But Wilson nevertheless finds plenty of time for character development and exploration of themes rarely, if ever, addressed in genre fiction. “The Devil in America” remains Wilson’s more ambitious work, but for sure Sorcerer is not your grandpappy’s Conan. In fact, it opens doors to such question as: is Sorcerer of the Wildeeps the next Neveryon? Is Wilson becoming this generation’s Samuel Delany?