The Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps, Kai Ahsante Wilson (2015)

A fantasy novella that gestures at vaster conceptions than its slim length can contain, Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps is at once a rich broth of engagingly florid prose, a pointed lesson in the uses of dialect in fantasy writing, a tight, violent slice of hard-scrabble life, and a queer science-fantasy love story. It’s not totally surprising that Kai Ahsante Wilson doesn’t hit every twist in this quadruple-somersault with equal aplomb, but it’s exhilarating (and a little exhausting) watching someone try.

The part of Sorcerer which didn’t quite work for me was the cryptic science-fantasy elements – it’s not magic, it’s genetic enhancements; those aren’t gods ascending, they’re superluminal spacecraft; etc. It adds a layer of riddle-making to the story which is certainly there to be puzzled out if you like that kind of thing (and usually I do!) but which doesn’t quite get beyond the feeling, common in modern fantasy, that there’s one hell of a campaign sourcebook lurking just out of sight.

That’s probably the only common thing about the book, though, and even then the worldbuilding does have a wider resonance – it’s a reminder of the traditions Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps is engaging in beyond high fantasy like Delany-esque afrofuturism or Wolfeian literary game-playing. And if the prose and the ideas are an awkward, self-conscious fit for a fantasy book, so too is the protagonist.

Demane, the protagonist, is trained (and to some extent genetically engineered) as a medic, but his superhuman physique and strength puts him in high demand for baser trades, and the book details his stint as a caravan guard, the second in command of a band of polyglot guards-for-hire he knows as “brothers”. They have a contemptuous employer, the caravan’s lead merchant, and a leader, another genetically unusual superhuman – Captain – who is also, secretly, Demane’s lover. The caravan has stopped at a waystation, in advance of its arduous trek across the area of shifting reality called the Wildeeps. But rumour reaches them of something much nastier than usual lurking on the road through…

Given this setup, Wilson makes the important choice to spend 2/3 of the novella’s 200 pages at the waystation, not in the titular Wildeeps. The focus isn’t on the area, or the threat, it’s on the relationship between Demane and Captain, and also the rabble of brothers Demane feels a responsibility to protect, from themselves as much as anything. Sorcerer Of The Wildeeps is a story about a romantic love between men, but it’s also a story about collective love between men – the frustrating, idiotic, bullshit-ridden, fierce bonds that exist between workers doing a dangerous job.

Why does it have to only be men? The bonds of work and danger cross gender. But Wilson has a good ear for men en masse: boastful, horny, sometimes deceptively tender, and the fact the caravan’s brothers are all men puts into sharper relief the way the book is about code-switching and passing – Demane, who is in reality transcendentally above both his middle-class employer and working-class fellow employees, struggles with both of their languages, at the same time as enjoying the other brothers’ regard and respect as their miracle-working ‘sorcerer’. The book’s dialogue is a thrill and a shock set against most fantasy writing – many of the brothers use AAVE, others speak in creoles, and there are fine distinctions of age and seniority in the characters’ dialects too. It’s one of the most successful parts of the book.

All this linguistic play holds up a mirror, of course, to the ways Demane finds communicating with his lover difficult too, and the assumptions and projections a lover makes about the person they love. Demane is not engineered for violence but can perform it with aplomb, and he believes – or presumes – that Captain has some similar ‘true’ role: a belief that drives the central incident of the ‘way station’ part of the novel, and carries forward into the book’s climax in the Wildeeps themselves.

This climax is unflinchingly brutal, Wilson and his cast wading in viscera as the caravan hits its moment of maximum peril (a character is gruesomely disemboweled, for instance: then a few pages later just to rub it in we get the action again from the disembowelee’s perspective). Violence has been a constant companion through the book, and Wilson’s prose is good enough to make it feel physical, repulsive and adrenalised rather than numbing. The ending will linger, but so will the heat, stink, ugliness and linguistic pyrotechnics of the book’s central chapters.