I first heard of this short novel when it received the Crawford Award as the best first fantasy of the year. The Crawford is given by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, an academic organization, and, while it isn't a stuffy award exactly, it does tend to be high-toned. The award will occasionally go to someone destined to become a beloved genre favorite, like Charles de Lint, but is at least as likely to be awarded to writers like Jonathan Lethem, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, or Mary Rickert, who go on to develop impeccable (high) literary credentials. I was particularly impressed when I found out that, among other finalists, Wilson's book had beaten out The Grace of Kings, a first novel by Ken Liu, whose award-winning short fiction and game-changing translation of the Hugo-Award-winning Chinese SF novel The Three-Body Problem (2008) by Liu Cixin has already made him a major figure in the field. I was all primed for a scrumptious (if appropriate) literary banquet, and I got one, though not exactly the one I expected.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, a secondary-world tale with no immediately obvious physical connection to our world, begins with a somewhat mannered letter from one Albion the Younger to his Uncle, the latter very probably the ruler of "Imperial Daluz," advising him on how best to defend the empire:
Let us take whom we need from the Summer continent. The blacks of the northern coast are a peaceable and undefended peoples, the men sturdy, the women fine. Let us expand all our colonies there, and begin to cut down and export the cedar forests of Philipium; take for ourselves the pearl beds of Merquerish, the copper mines of Santa Caela. Fear not to awaken the wrath of the mighty Kingdom of Olorum, nor that of the gods of Ashé who protect it.
Okay, this is clearly some species of what Ursula K. Le Guin once called "the genuine Elfland accent," and as such, particularly considering the content of the paragraph, sets up all sorts of readerly expectations. We'll have great heroes and great deeds, gods, probably a monster or two, sorcerers and necromancy, of course, and kingdoms for the asking, all discovered, joined in battle with, and enjoyed in eloquent, slightly quaint prose—the book's plot in a nutshell.
Well, yes and no.
Turning the page, we find ourselves in the first chapter of something that does not feel at all like high fantasy. A caravan has just arrived at the Station at Mother of Waters, the last bit of civilization before a grueling transit of the dangerous jungle called the Wildeeps where, we're told, repeatedly, that to step off the sorcerously protected road for even a moment is to court gruesome death or worse. Our protagonist, Demane, is a huge man, a great warrior but also a somewhat limited working wizard—though, to tell the truth, his wizardry sounds a bit like the proverbial Clarkean technology so sophisticated as to feel like magic. Eventually we also discover that Demane isn't entirely human, is in fact some sort of demi-god or extraterrestrial in disguise.
Upon arriving at the Station, the caravan's leader, Master Suresh l'Merqerim, announces to his caravan guards:
"Your choice, gentlemen . . . Leave us; and join some other group of saltmen going straight back north. Do so, and you go home beggars. Three silver half-weights are what you'll get from me, and not a whoring penny more. But permit me to ask: Who here has balls? That man I invite to press on with us! Hard men will be required on the road . . . "
So, okay, this is a fantasy where the author allows himself some vulgarity, not exactly what one expects from a high fantasy or a Crawford Award winner, perhaps. but hardly unusual, clearly something closer to Robert E. Howard than J. R. R. Tolkien.
Master Suresh's guards sign on to a man, of course, all happy to embrace danger in the expectation of a much larger financial reward once the journey is complete. This includes both Demane—who serves the company as warrior, sorcerer, and doctor—and Isa, the Captain of the guards, another not-quite-human, a super-competent warrior whose every word is quite literally music—and who, as we eventually learn, is Demane's lover, a secret they would not share with the rest of the company under any circumstances. This is all well-done stuff—I don't want to imply that it isn't—but, except for the gay protagonists, it does, once again, feel a lot like Robert E. Howard. Then Wilson introduces various of his guards and things take a more interesting turn, at least on a linguistic level.
"Y'all do what you want," said Mosteyfa, called Teef. "But this nigga here?" They called him that for the obvious reason: long, snaggled, missing . . . "Is going all the way to Olorum." . . . pewter-black, moss-green, yellow . . . "My ass ain't tryna go right back up to the desert" . . . cracked, carious, crooked. "A nigga need some rest behind that motherfucker!"
And a bit later:
Demane snatched the upturned goatskin from Messed Up's mouth: "How you gon' drink the whole thing straight down? You remember how you made yourself sick all them times. Act like you got some sense for once!"
"What do it matter, Sorcerer?" Once upon a time, Messed Up's scowl had only bespoken gormless passion. "You see they got a whole big-ass lake right there!"
The book's gorgeous cover art by Karla Ortiz has prepared readers to expect black characters, but not to expect this kind of code-switching language. This is fine writing—notice the sly way the author mentions the "obvious" reason that the character is called "that," meaning "Teef," when most readers, somewhat taken aback by the language, are likely to see "that" not in terms of teeth, but in terms of Wilson's transgressive use of the black slang term "nigga" in what sounds like a specifically African-American dialect. This is something readers, even African American readers I'm guessing, simply don't expect to encounter in a secondary-world fantasy (and yes, various orcs and weasels have spoken in Cockney from time to time, but for American readers at least that's not at all the same thing).
Which brings us to the basic concept, beloved of linguistic professors and cultural studies mavens, of the marked and the unmarked. The unmarked is that which is recognized without the need for any identifying tag. The marked requires identifiers. Thus we have people (unmarked males) and women (people, yes, but in need of an extra identifier); people and black people; people and Muslims; people and LGBTQ people. In all of my centuries of teaching freshman composition and, occasionally, creative writing, I have (almost) never had a straight white male student writer who has felt the need to identify a straight white male character in his essay or story as anything more than a guy, whereas a gay, black, or female person, will always be identified as such.
When we read fantasy (by which I mean straight white male readers like myself and probably, I'm guessing, a number of people who don't exactly fit my own list of marking modifiers, but who read unmarked characters similarly simply because they're used to it), we tend to assume that any character we meet, and particularly the protagonist, is like "us" and thus not in need of identifying tags. We might need to be told that a given character is royalty or monstrous or ten feet tall or is short with hairy feet, but we simply assume his straight white maleness, unless some sort of gender, race, or sexual orientation marker is included. In a medieval fantasy it is unlikely to occur to you that a warrior named Ustgug is black or a lesbian and you'll probably only notice her femaleness (minus specific body descriptions) because our language is so relentlessly gendered.
And all of this goes for language as well, particularly dialogue. The majority of modern fantasy characters, Master Suresh, for example, sound like either more or less middle-class white Americans or more or less middle-class white Britons, but with slightly archaic accents. When the writer adds an accent or, more extreme, a different dialect to show otherwise, it's usually to denote that the character is either working class (Samwise Gamgee) or nobility (Aragorn). There's nothing wrong with this sort of short-hand characterization, but the point is that the white middle-class dialect is unmarked. Characters so constructed (like Frodo) are thus seen as lacking an accent rather than as having white middle-class accents. So, how does this rant tie back to Wilson's story?
Wilson is hardly the first writer of fantasy to include characters with distinctive, even occasionally opaque, dialects or accents, but by endowing his poor, uneducated, vulgar, and individually characterized caravan guards with distinct and differing dialects (for Wilson introduces more than one) that aren't just working class but that specifically shout "working class, African American," he's forcing his readers to stretch their expectations of what is possible when they read secondary-world fantasy (or science fiction, or whatever it is). And the phrases in Spanish and French that the black characters occasionally throw in, which somehow seem even more inappropriate in this world, just add to the, well, not exactly confusion, but certainly the novel's refusal to settle down and merely meet our expectations.
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps has been widely reviewed elsewhere at this point, so I see no need to recount its plot in detail. It has been praised by many not only for its language, its fascinating characters, and its positive portrayal of a gay relationship, but also for its sometimes dauntingly non-linear plot, its refusal to explicitly spell out the background of its world, and its ambiguous ending. Because of these characteristics Wilson's tale calls to mind two of my favorite works of science fantasy, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (1980-83) and Paul McAuley's Confluence trilogy (1997-1999), each a prime example of worlds run by what may well be Clarkean magical science. Further, it would be hard for an experienced genre reader to miss the influence of Samuel Delany, particularly his Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979) and its sequels. It's hard to predict whether or not any individual reader will respond positively to Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, but such a response may rest largely on that reader's ability to be comfortable with a tale that refuses to accept the boundaries of traditional secondary-world fantasy and absolutely insists on ambiguity.
Moreover, by both giving us a wide range of characters, each speaking in his own dialect, and by refusing to privilege the traditionally unmarked white middle-class accent (or dialect) of the typical fantasy protagonist, Wilson is not just denying that privilege but also denying readers the option of giving such privilege unthinking acceptance. Most fantasy literature of this sort has, consciously or otherwise, a distinct imperialist attitude. We have the hero and "his" people (white men, elves, etc.) and we have the Others, people who are less civilized, innately inferior, often people of color; call them Orcs or Morlocks, if you will. Master Suresh may theoretically be in charge of the caravan, but he and his close-to-standard, implicitly white English really don't matter to the reader. Demane and Captain Isa, a pair of gay and deeply heroic, black supermen (who actually code-switch dialects as they move between universes and narrative viewpoints) are the ones who matter most, but we also care about the guards—Teef, Messed Up, Faedou, T-Jawn, and the rest—because each is an individual with his own personality, his own distinct dialect. Wilson isn't the first black writer to demonstrate the possibilities of mixing traditional fantasy tropes with African-American culture, of course, but few have concentrated so brilliantly on the linguistic implications of doing so.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.