Fourteen tales of sword & sorcery by black authors set either in or places inspired by medieval Africa—Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology (2011), edited by Milton Davis and Charles R. Saunders, is a great introduction to a movement that deserves a lot more attention from the fantasy community at large. The only story I didn’t finish was one that I literally could not read. More on that later.
Back in the day I had short back-and-forth with Larry Nolan after his review of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon noting how well sword & sorcery tropes lend themselves to non-western settings. Now that I’ve had a bit more time thinking on the topic, it’s not as surprising as I let on. The fundamental, appealing aspect of what Lin Carter called “heroic fantasy” is the echo of myths, legends and epics about heroes fighting monsters and sorcery that are commonly found across the world no matter the culture. The “griots” of this anthology’s title are the storytellers of west Africa who tell tales of…mighty heroes fighting evil.
The wellspring is the same, even when the people and places are different.
Despite the clear theme, there’s an impressive range of stories and voices in Griots—there’s a lot of thematic wiggle room in sword & sorcery. My favourites were “Skin Magic” by P. Djeli Clark,in which a young man cursed with a mysterious moving tattoo flees from those who want to control his powers, and “In the Belly of the Crocodile” by Minister Faust, a retelling of the myth of Osiris from Set’s point of view. Stafford L. Battle’s “The Demon in the Wall” made me laugh out loud several times at its sheer in-your-face, over-the-top inanity—it might not be for everyone since it’s full of poop and sex jokes, but Battle tells the story with infectious enthusiasm and the plot is relentless. Another point in its favour: it’s a rare thing to see a story where a grandmother also gets to be a badass warrior-hero and use her own sexuality to move the plot. Huge fun. “Sekadi’s Koan” by Geoffrey Thorn features another warrior-woman in what ends up being a thoughtful character study rather than a deluge of blood (and plenty of these stories end with deluges of blood), while “Icewitch” by Rebecca McFarland Kyle is (surprisingly) set in the snow-covered Arctic and focuses on the plight of a mixed-raced young man trying to find a place for himself in a society that rejects him.
Rounding out the collection is “The Three-Faced One” by Charles R. Saunders. I’ve reviewed the first Imaro book on this blog; this story takes place after that series ends and reintroduces the world to Imaro on his possibly final adventure, an epic wrestling match in the north of Nyumbani—his fantasy version of Africa. I enjoyed it a great deal.
As for the rest—I usually don’t finish stories I don’t like, and as I pointed out earlier, none of the stories made me want to quit reading. Mind you, I’m more likely to stick with sword & sorcery stories than any other genre. In these cases, I think “not for me” was more the issue than any lack of talent; all the authors are clearly passionate about their writing, and in an anthology like this, which I believe was meant to be a “sampler” for sword and soul, you’d expect a diverse set appealing to a wide spread readers.
That being said, this is a small press book and there were some noticeable typos throughout, though not in a high enough frequency to really impact my reading. A bigger problem: I bought my copy of the eBook version from the Kobo website since I have a Kobo and all, and there are weird formatting inconsistencies from story to story (spacing, use of italics or underlines for emphasis, etc.) which again, isn’t a problem except in the case of “The Leopard Walks Alone” by Melvin Carter: it has frequent line breaks every sentence that make the story unreadable. If anyone knows a different place I can get this story, let me know, since it looks right up my alley.
My understanding is that the print and Kindle editions don’t have these issues, so if you can get it in those formats you’ll probably be better off.
EDIT: The editor informed me on Goodreads that the formatting issues with the Kobo epub have now been fixed.
So, there’s my review on the anthology itself. Now, on to a niggling question I’ve had since I read it: when the book was released in 2011, why did it receive so little attention from the fantasy community at large? Why is sword & soul, a subgenre we’ve had since the 1970s, seemingly invisible to the tastemakers of the blogging world when tags like “we need diverse books” take Twitter by storm? There are some (unsatisfactory) answers: Griots came out from a small press instead of a major publisher or out of a prominent Kickstarter campaign, and sword & soul hearkens back to a kind of adventure fantasy that is generally looked down upon these days. Even still, having Charles Saunders and Minister Faust’s names attached should have given something of a boost. Minister Faust’s Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad came out with high acclaim seven years prior and he is the current writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta.
Then there’s the adventure fantasy aspect. Sword & sorcery doesn’t get a lot of respect these days, and while I might not have liked Throne of the Crescent Moon that much (which falls under the category, surely), I don’t think it deserved the savaging it got from some critics.* The thing is, I often saw bloggers I used to follow tear into another boring Eurocentric fantasy and demand fantasy adventure stories with minority/diverse characters in non-western settings…only for the next post to review another Eurocentric fantasy by a white author. They weren’t bothering to seek out the fantasy they said they wanted. It’s easy to grow disillusioned in an atmosphere like that, the perception of a willing audience that doesn’t actually exist because the inertia in reading habits is so damn high.
So that might account for it too.
All that being said, Griots is an excellent book for folks who want to see some more diverse settings and writers in fantasy, and I hope that authors of sword & soul, steamfunk and the like gain the recognition they deserve.
*I’ve since read the short stories that Throne sprang from and I like those a lot more.