Friday, October 12, 2012
100 Books #97 - Balogun Ojetade's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRIKA
"Sword and Soul" is a sub-genre I had yet to explore -- had yet even to have heard of -- before my good friend and fellow bookfreak EssJay mentioned it, and this book, to me. Ever ready to try something new, especially if it's cheap, I decided to take a chance on Once Upon a Time in Afrika.
I'm very glad I did.
Written like a fairy tale, densely plotted like the conventional epic fantasies it's riffing on, Once Upon a Time in Afrika is a hell of a lot of fun to read. Set in an alternate pre-white-contact version of Africa in which the magic and the gods and demigods of folk tale and legend are real and part of everyday life, the story of badass Princess Esuseeke and her equally badass suitors is packed with action, combat, empowerment and intrigue. Ojetade is a student of African martial arts and it shows; his fight scenes are intricate, plausible, visceral and absolutely breathtaking, but he's writer enough to keep the reader's attention between battles.*
Refreshingly for this reader, Esuseeke is not rebelling when she takes up a sword or drops into an unarmed combat stance, but partaking fully of a culture that expects women to be able to defend themselves and boasts of a proud tradition of women warriors who often outshine the men. Her gender is important only because of her royalty; someone's got to breed successors to the crown, and for that she needs, at some point, a husband.
But her husband can't just be any old blue-blood type; he has to be her equal. And there aren't many of those.
Enter the time-honored device of the tournament. The winner gets to marry Esuseeke -- all nice and straightforward. But it isn't; Esuseeke's father, a politician rather than a warrior, doesn't trust the mechanism to produce a satisfactory result. He has someone in mind for her that will probably win, but daddy wants to be sure, you see. In other words, daddy starts gaming the system even before the system is in place, just to make sure that his daughter marries the right guy.
Of course the right guy is kind a jerk. More than a jerk, actually, a terrifying warlord whose fixation on the Law brings him to commit acts of extreme cruelty towards those less fortunate than he, rather than bend the rules a little.
But wait, there's more! Chiefly one Akin, the son of the unspeakably badass warrior woman who trained Esuseeke, but whom the princess somehow never met. He is the best student at his parents' school but has yet to prove himself anywhere else, but oh is he ready. Packing a pair of wooden swords that once slew a dragon and sporting a bristling mohawk, he is every inch a hero-in-waiting, but the way he finds himself fighting for Esuseeke's hand isn't quite what he might expect.
There's also a magician of intimidating power and wiliness, who just happens to be the sworn enemy of the Jerk. And a vast and skeletal monster only half of which, the left side, exists in our world. And a freaky witch that tricks her way into Akin's stomach. And a giant, pasty warrior who rides an armored albino rhinocerus into battle. And much, much more.
I haven't had this much sheer fun with a book since the first Crown of the Blood novel, if you couldn't tell.
So if you love pulp fantasy but don't love the racism, or the sexism, this may be your new favorite novel, or perhaps novella, for my one complaint about Once Upon a Time in Afrika, it's that it's just too short! But like they say, you want to leave 'em hankering for more.
Mission accomplished, Mr. Ojetade.
*Although there is a bit of tedium in the middle as he sends the kingdom's Prime Minister on a tour of the continent, recruiting warriors for the tournament. It's only a bit tedious, though, because Ojetade's considerable imagination gets free reign on the journey. And he does like a badass warrior-woman, does Ojetade. Oh, yes.