I like writers who take risks in introducing their heroes. Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa sets this first book of The Nameless Republic series on the continent of Oon and its dominant country called Bassa. But unlike the image of the sleek figure on the cover art, the protagonist appears before us initially as something of a mess.
Always late, clothes disarranged (in a world where status and appearance are everything), bumblingly rebellious, Danso, a scholar/historian initiate, embarrasses his family and his intended, Esheme, who expect him to rise in the ranks of the jali scholar caste. Or at least get to key public events on time. He seems to fudge everything, but we soon learn it’s not because of a lack of brains or talent. He feels wrong in his skin and yearns for a world where he can make his own choices.
Son of the Storm‘s is epic fantasy set in a world inspired by the ancient empires of West Africa that slowly reveals a complex power struggle in which the major characters all play key roles, even though they start out expecting nothing of the sort. Bassa is a country in decline with a corrupt ruling class and simmering discontent that could erupt at any time in open rebellion. This world is rigorously defined by both skin color and caste. The “high-brown” or humus toned are the most favored among the Bassai, while “low-brown” leaves one permanently in a working class identity. Then there are the Shashi, like Danso, of lighter skin but whose origins are in a different part of the continent that is a protectorate of Bassa. There are desert-landers or yellow-skins who are allowed into Bassa only as indentured servants, but worst of all from the point of view of the highest class Bassai, known as Idu, are the natives of the Nameless Islands, an archipelago that seems invisible and sunken long ago.
One of these Nameless people, who can change skin-color as the most effective disguise possible, has managed to infiltrate Bassa in search of the sacred power stone called ibor. When leading members of the Bassai ruling council are killed under mysterious circumstances, this unidentified intruder is blamed. The borders are closed, and the hunt to find her is on. When she, identifying herself as Lilong, crosses paths with Danso, instead of turning her in, he does the unthinkable and offers her help. Then he too becomes one of the hunted as he seeks to escape the confines of Bassai life and find his true homeland with other Shashi people. As outcasts, they undertake a journey across savannah, a magical and frightening Breathing Forest and desert to reach the Shashi home of Whudasha.
While Danso starts out with no special powers or weapons at all, it isn’t long before he finds, quite inadvertently, that he does have a unique ability when he gets hold of the rare ibor stone that everyone is after. It becomes in his hands a very powerful weapon indeed, one that induces a person-sized bat to follow him in a zombie state. It turns out that this bat can attract lightning and so becomes another powerful weapon in his hands.
Danso remains untrained as a fighter but nevertheless becomes powerfully destructive when enemies threaten him and those he needs to protect. He is a deeply torn, searching character trying to find his home, a place in the world where he feels accepted for who he is. But escaping one socially defined and limiting role may lead him into another that poses even greater dangers.
The writer has a lot to say about power, class, race, oppression and how all these affect and shape personal identity. This last is what I find most interesting in this debut, somewhat ungainly novel. There is a lot of info-dumping, discussions about power that don’t grow smoothly out of the dramatic situations and sometimes more detail about the world of Bassa than is needed to understand what is going on. But the more I got into the book, the more I was drawn to all the major characters.
We see the world of Bassa and the neighboring territories from several points of view. Among them are: Lilong, the intruder from the Nameless Islands on a do-or-die mission to make up for a mysterious event in her family’s past; Zaq, Danso’s indentured servant who is also looking for his real home; Esheme, his intended who has her eye on a ruthless path to power; Biemwense, an elder of the Shashi people who offers help and guidance to Danso, Zaq and Lilong when they most need it.
All of them have struggled with problems of identity, power, status and skin-color as it determines their roles in life and circumscribes their freedom in the world controlled by a dominant Bassa. Most of them have been profoundly dissatisfied with the roles they have been assigned and risk everything to change what their families and societies have directed them to do and to become. Often these changes have to do with finding a kind of power that helps liberate them (while also imposing new responsibilities and restrictions) and balancing that with freedom and a purpose in life that more truly draws out who they really are beneath the surface.
That’s not easy in a world where shades of skin-color mean so much, clothes make one readily identifiable by rank and even hairstyles fix people in their assigned castes. That is a deeply human need, and most people in our own world rarely break through all the barriers of race, class, caste and family expectations to achieve personal fulfillment on their own terms.
The one problem with this novel for me is that those breakthrough moments for each character are discussed so explicitly in fairly abstract terms, as if the author didn’t trust the readers to grasp what’s going on by themselves. The writing doesn’t go too far down that road since the people and their struggles are compelling enough and realized through action enough that I never felt we were sacrificing character to proving a point. The situations and motivations are too fluid and complex for that, but there were moments when I worried that the characters might become overwhelmed by ideas.
This is an excellent story, despite a few rough edges, that pulled me in more deeply, the more it upset my initial expectations of how epic fantasies unfold. All the major characters are fighting to redefine themselves and escape the confines of their prescribed social roles. For better and worse, they largely succeed and set the stage for what are sure to be intriguing sequels to Son of the Storm.