The City-State of Bassa is a complex society. A layered hierarchy of castes—arranged according to skin colour, with those of darker skin closer to the top—structures access to political power, social status, and urban space. The City-State itself is caught in the waiting room of history, its borders shrinking, its influence waning—but still effective—and nostalgia for a lost Empire pervading its streets. In its outer parts, discontent rumbles, as the Coalition for a New Bassa undermines public authority and promises a restoration of past glory.
Danso, a jali novitiate at the University of Bassa, stands on the cusp of a good life. His light skin notwithstanding, his excellent memory and scholarly talents have earned him his novitiate, a betrothal to Esheme (a novitiate of the powerful counsel guild, and the daughter of the influential Nem, although herself of non-elite descent), and a future in the upper echelons of Bassa society as a scholar and chronicler. But Danso never entirely fits in: the Bassa aristocracy views him as an interloper at the best of times, and as a potential subversive at the worst:
His clothes and hair plait said jali novitiate, that he was a scholar-historian enrolled at the University of Bassa, and therefore had to be an Idu, the only caste allowed to attend said university. But his too-light complexion said Shashi caste, said he was of a poisoned union between a mainlander and an outlander and that even if the moons intervened, he would always be a disgrace to the mainland, an outcast who didn’t even deserve to stand there and exist. (p. 30)
Matters are not helped by his own wilful disregard of social norms. Danso is frequently late to public events, much to the ambitious Esheme’s chagrin. He causes great controversy when he sneaks into a forbidden section of the University Library and discovers a taboo codex written by an ambiguous figure from Bassa’s past—the Manic Emperor Nogowu—which refers to the mysterious “stones of sorcery.” And despite a promise not to, he finds himself writing stories about what he has read in the codex—stories that his father burns when he finds out, for fear of what may come to pass if Danso’s transgression is discovered.
It is this feeling-out-of-place that drives Danso to take the rashest of all decisions: offering shelter and succour to a wounded “Yellowskin” (a Bassa pejorative used to refer to inhabitants from the supposedly “submerged” Nameless Archipelago), accused of gruesomely murdering Bassa’s Speaker, and severely wounding Nem. Lilong has come to the City from the archipelago, seeking to recover a stolen artefact. But when Danso resists the temptation of turning her in to the authorities as definitive proof of his patriotism, he sets in motion a chain of events that he could not have imagined. Now he must flee across the continent with Lilong and his unwilling Second, Zaq, away from the justice—and vengeance—of Bassa, and of Esheme. But Lilong’s coming has revealed an even more dangerous secret: the existence of the element ibor—the Manic Emperor Nogowu’s “stones of sorcery”—long believed to be a myth, and whose use allows the wielder to perform great—and dangerous—feats of sorcery. As Esheme—now locked in her own struggle for power against Bassa’s aristocracy—begins to understand that ibor could be central to the City-State’s dreams of Empire, the stage is set for a struggle that will alter the future.
For those acquainted with Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s previous work—in particular, his debut novel, David Mogo, Godhunter—there is much that will be familiar in Son of the Storm, which is also a West African-inspired work of fantasy. In particular, as in David Mogo, Godhunter, one of the most remarkable and compelling elements of the novel is a lush, deep sense of place. Whether it is Bassa, the Breathing Forest, the nominally-independent-but-actually-subordinate Protectorate of Whudasha, or the perilous dead mines, Okungbowa’s world-building is granular, detailed, and sensory. Here, there is colour (“The three plaited arches on her head gleamed in the afternoon sun, the deep-yellow cheto dye massaged into her hair illuminating her head” [p. 45]); light (“Handheld palm oil lamps carried by passersby cast smoky lights on the red earth of the corridors” [p. 427]); taste (“his mind returned to the barn, the taste of tuber dust on his tongue”[p. 234]); touch (“her skin burned against his” [p. 518]); smell (“standing so close, she could parse each ingredient by its smell: shea butter, honey, aloe, camwood, palm kernel, cocoa, palm ash, lime.” [p. 632]); and sometimes all together (“She smelled pleasantly of the starflower gardenia, which she had tucked into each of her five arched plaits, newly plaited and oiled” [p. 214]). This is accompanied by striking imagery: my favourites included “he found wounds so alive they could’ve been given their own names” (p. 240), and the splendid “how could one explain a toothache to someone without teeth?” (p. 563).
This sense of granularity carries over to other aspects of Son of the Storm, in particular, the society of Bassa. Okungbowa’s portrayal of the metropolis reveals the complexity of social hierarchies, as well as how they intersect with urban design—something that is often hinted at in the genre, but has not received detailed treatment. The metropolis is divided into Wards, with closeness—and access—to the centre reflecting social status: “Everything deteriorates with distance from the beating heart of the Great Dome” (p. 427), as the revealing Bassa saying goes. Through the book, this division unfolds not just through physical infrastructure, but through contempt, laughter, and through social solidarities against the elite (the Fifteenth is home to “the Cockroach,” the leader of the Coalition For a New Bassa). There is an almost Les Miserables atmosphere to the seething class antagonisms within Bassa, how they simmer beneath a surface in uneasy equilibrium, and what happens when they are allowed to break out. What is most impressive about the world-building is Okungbowa’s keen understanding of how both power and subordination are layered, structured, and institutional, rather than personalised. Thus, even though Son of the Storm has a detailed and well-developed system of magic, its use is complementary to the dirty work of politics, rather than a substitute for it.
There is also, however, a flip side to this. It is almost trite to say that historically, in the fantasy genre—with its overwhelmingly predominant feudal settings—the People are often off-stage, silent, or otherwise unheard. Fantasy that attempts to remedy this deserves praise simply for that reason, and Son of the Storm certainly falls into that category. There is a parallel risk to this, nonetheless, that I call the “Marc Antony trap.” As fantasy still primarily remains an individual protagonist-driven genre, attempts to integrate the People as actor can become somewhat schematic, replicating the form of Brutus and Marc Antony’s exchange in Julius Caesar. Both polished orators, Brutus and Antony offer up to the Roman Plebeians competing narratives of Caesar’s assassination. When Brutus speaks, the “Plebs” sway towards the narrative of Caesar as dictator, and his assassination being morally justified to preserve the Roman Republic. When Antony speaks, the “Plebs” turn entirely, persuaded to believe that Caesar was a noble benefactor, and that his death needs to be violently avenged. At all times, Shakespeare presents the Plebs as an undifferentiated mass (designated in the play as 1 Pleb, 2 Pleb etc.), their identities and words interchangeable (“O Noble Caesar!”, “O piteous spectacle!”), and their actions as those of a mob, driven this way or that by demagogues.
Son of the Storm avoids the extremes of the Marc Antony trap, but there nonetheless are moments when one wished that Bassa’s People had a little more agency than they are allowed. The responses to Esheme’s funeral speech for the Speaker feel, at times, too pat, almost too easy: hisses in the crowd, tremors, strategic interventions by “coalition plants” (p. 488), choruses, and finally tumult and riot. The aristocracy’s response to this is predictable in its dullness—coercion and violence, which engenders an equally predictable response of the speech having an even greater impact. Thus:
The truth of proceedings had been embellished slightly, and her words polished for memorable effect, so that every citizen came away with two understandings: that Esheme had unearthed the long-hidden truth behind the border closure and clamoured for the glory days of an emperor, and that the coalition agreed with her that enough was indeed enough. They hired singers and heralds with lower morals than a jali to sing litanies and parrot her words until they became gospel. Even the outer wards began to warm up to Esheme in a way that no inner-warder had garnered support for many seasons. The coalition capitalized on this to boost their ranks and rake in even more followers. (p. 540)
This is thrilling to read—and Esheme’s subsequent progress towards occupying power keeps the reader on the edge of their seat—but it also—somewhat—portrays the citizenry of Bassa as passive, more acted upon than actors. This is replicated in a subsequent scene where a brief moment of wavering from the citizenry is quickly overcome by some well-chosen words from Esheme. However, to his credit, Okungbowa ensures that Esheme’s path to power is strewn with enough obstacles—and is ambiguous enough—so as not to turn it into a victory march, and the ending of Book 1 suggests that there will be more to come on this front.
Apart from the political and social world-building—including perceptive commentary on immigration, othering, the rewriting of history, and the perilous work of building trust between those who have been taught to see each other as less than human—Son of the Storm has all the elements that will be to the liking of fantasy fans: individual development through the lens of the Quest, heady chase-and-action scenes, friendship, betrayal, and sacrifice, and a high-stakes ending. Set in an original and well-developed secondary world, Son of the Storm will leave its readers eagerly awaiting the second instalment in the series.