(Review originally written and posted on Wethenerdy.com. Advanced review copy provided by Tor)
Sometimes bad books can be good. I’ve reviewed a handful of them, openly pointing out flaws in characters and writing styles that would have normally seen me gagging in disgust, but were somehow overlooked because I was having fun. This is especially true of fantasy novels, where nonstop action and well-developed magic systems can overcome even the worst trope-ridden characters or sophomoric writing habits. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson, on the other hand, might be the first story I’ve read that’s the reverse: It’s a good book that’s bad.
Ashante Wilson’s debut novella is fairly simple in plot, though complex in pretty much everything else. We follow Sorcerer Demane and Captain Isa and their band of guardsman as they escort a rich merchant and his wares through The Wildeeps, a treacherous jungle where one must never leave the road. However, nothing is quite what it seems. Demane and Isa are demigods, perhaps the last two left, and The Wildeeps is home to more than just your typical jungle wildlife.
Like the bad books that can be good, the biggest problem with The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is one of writing, though in a completely different way than your typical piece of genre fiction. Whereas most fantasy novels suffer from bland writing styles that are more boring than engaging, The Sorcerer and the Wildeeps is unnecessarily thick and pretentious. Sentences aren’t so much overly descriptive as just strangely constructed, grammatically dense with semicolons and colons, and all around confusing at points. It’s purple prose from start to finish.
Or, to put it simply: This novella is hard to read.
I don’t normally quote books in my reviews, but I feel like I need an example of what I’m talking about. Below is a paragraph which can be found on Tor’s website.
“There is a principle called TSIM. Through deep time the universe complicates, all things whatsoever arising from the mother quantum, precisely so this man (writhing now on Demane’s spearpoint) might enjoy sentience, choice, and love. This is TSIM. And all who claim to follow the principle must have hands loath and cold when it comes time to kill. You’re sworn to better work than murder. Unreckoned aeons gone by, and incalculable effort spent, for what? To kill a man, your unctuous shaft dragging, slippery and bone-caught, through your grasp? Demane braced his foot to the deadman’s chest, crushing ribs and sternum under his heel, until his spearpoint pulled loose. Clear as day he heard the Tower laughing on its left side: TSOA. Chaos and pointlessness are the point! That is TSOA. But divinity knocked about inside Demane like some great-winged bird caught indoors, frantic to find that one open window again; and so, however slow and reluctant, still he had faster hands, stronger arms, than anyone facing him.”
It’s not that this writing style is impossible to follow, but there’s something anachronistic about it. Reading through this novella reminded me of novels I had to read for college, many of which were old and in a very different style than what most people are used to now. It’s natural for a 200-year old book to be hard to read given how language changes, but The Sorcerer and the Wildeeps is not 200 years old. There’s no reason for such a style of writing.
It’s perhaps unfair to write off a piece of work for stylistic reasons, but I really, really did not like the prose here. I found it tiresome, and it certainly made reading it less enjoyable.
The dialogue too is problematic, conflicting heavily with the pretentious descriptions. To start, many of the characters are vulgar, with the word “Fuck” appearing three times on the first page alone. That by itself isn’t a huge deal given the characters we’re dealing with. It makes sense that some of them curse. However, many of them make liberal use of the word “Nigga,” which makes no sense given the setting of the book. This is a fantasy story that, from what I can tell, takes place in the past and not on Earth. No one should be using such a modern, American slang term.
It does not fit, and it absolutely took me out of the story.
Those two things are The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps’ only problems, but they last from start to finish. That’s a shame too, because everything else about the book is really good.
The best part of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is probably its setting, which is rich and vivid, both in its history and in its scope. The places visited feel real, and though we only get glimpses of people and customs, they manage to be the perfect snapshots. The way Mother of Waters treats those who cheat when gambling tells us more than enough about their city without needing pages and pages of description, for example. This style of storytelling continues throughout, working flawlessly on every page.
Ashante Wilson managed to pack an entire world and history into a quarter of what a normal fantasy epic would need.
An interesting world wouldn’t be much without interesting characters, and Ashante Wilson delivers on that front too. Demane is a complicated character, with a big back story that’s delivered in perfect snapshots, giving us just the right information without overstaying their welcome. Isa is no different.
Even the secondary characters are well-rounded, despite not having as much history behind them. Ashante Wilson knows that one perfect scene is better than a hundred mundane ones when it comes to creating a living person, meaning even a simple guard like Messed Up has substance despite having little air time.
This is a story where everyone and everything stands out.
This entire package, with a wonderful setting and interesting characters, all manages to come together perfectly, in an ending that’s both spectacular in its sequence and satisfying in its conclusion. Novellas have a bad habit of ending openly, and while The Sorcerer and the Wildeeps could continue on, it really doesn’t need to.
I also want to praise The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps for its racial diversity. Almost all of the characters are black, which is a huge rarity when it comes to fantasy. Magic and dragon slaying are white-people affairs in almost all instances it seems, and that’s really depressing. Big worlds deserve to have big differences in their people, and no, having dwarves and elves doesn’t count. That’s not diversity; that’s just fantasy tropes.
The last thing I want to talk about has nothing to do with Ashante Wilson at all but with modern publishing practices. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps isn’t a novel, it’s a novella. The .pdf file I received as a review copy measures maybe a 140 pages. Yet when I go to the Amazon page for this book, I see that it costs as much as a full novel. The paperback is $9.74 and the ebook is $2.99. For that same price, you can easily find four to five times the content. As someone who grew up as a voracious reader with little money, page count became very important. To me, paying almost $10.00 for a 140-page story is daft.
At the end of the day, I desperately want to love this story. So much is good, but the package itself just bothered me too much. I’m normally alright with purple prose in small doses, but an entire piece of fiction written in that style became tiresome by page four or five, and I had a lot of pages left to go.
If this story sounds interesting to you, however, then I encourage you to go to the Tor.com link above and skim the excerpt. If that writing style tickles your fancy, and you’re fine with spending a pretty penny on a short piece of fiction, then pick this up. It’s really good.