A launch title among Tor.com Publishing's late-2015 novella (or short novel, depending on how finely you choose to split hairs) line, Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps calls to mind the possibly apocryphal review Dorothy Parker is said to have bestowed upon a book by no less than Benito Mussolini. It is not a story to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
All right, that may be overly dramatic. But the advance hype surrounding Wilson's story is, regrettably, unmatched by the final product. Given that Wilson earned both a Nebula and World Fantasy nomination for his 2014 novelette "The Devil in America," it is understandable that expectations were high. But while it never for one moment lacks for ambition, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps buries the grandeur of its creative vision beneath a murky narrative and prose often stylized to the point of obscurantism. It's as if Wilson set out to create as vivid and richly textured a world as he could imagine, only to make it as inaccessible and uninviting a place for us to visit as it could be.
Our protagonist is Demane, a demigod descended from a race of higher beings who have abandoned earth for the stars. Now considered a sorcerer by the men he protects, Demane is working with a group of caravan guards guiding a pompous merchant, Master Suresh, across a storm-wracked landscape where, reportedly, such riches await them upon their destination in Olorum City that Suresh is prepared to pay each man in his company enough to set them up for life. To reach this goal, though, the caravan must pass through the Wildeeps, a sinister forested country where to stray one step from the main road means certain death at the teeth and claws of some fell beast rumored to be the spawn of the darkest witchcraft.
The story relies little on plot and focuses principally on Demane's inner conflicts, as he wrestles with, among other things, his romantic attachment to the guards' Captain, Isa, a demigod himself who is alternately tender (he literally sings in lieu of speaking) and bloodthirsty, entertaining the men by thrashing opponents in fights, sometimes to the death. But while I have read other reviews of this story, both admiring and otherwise, heaping praise upon Wilson's world building, I didn't get much sense from the story that we were being handed a fully developed world so much as a fairly small set that happened to be exquisitely art-directed. Wilson's evocation of mood, texture and atmosphere are amazing, his communication of his world's culture and history less so. With an all-male cast, the story deals commendably with homosocial norms among groups of warrrior-bred men in what is meant, I am sure, to be taken as a subversion of traditional sword-and-sorcery idioms. If I can praise this book for anything without reservation, it's that you have never seen this genre explored in quite this way before, and through such a self-critical lens. On the topic of black masculinity and its frequent associations with violence, Wilson most definitely seems to have a lot on his mind. Alas, the tale on balance isn't subversive so much as substandard.
I just could not connect to Wilson's writing, though I am certain there is an audience who will be able toconnect. It isn't just the overwrought prose, but the frequent lapses within the tale's dialogue into anachronistic slang that sounds far too contemporary and urban, far too straight-outa-Compton, rife with F-bombs and one particular racial epithet — and every time I encountered it, it didn't merely take me out of this dense and painstakingly created tale. It threw me with great force.