The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi fits so much character, worldbuilding, and messaging in its ninety-six pages. I was drawn into this story from the very first word, and each paragraph and sentence and chapter did not disappoint. The first novella in Utomi’s African folklore-inspired Forever Desert series, The Lies of the Ajungo is a story with emotional weight and important themes of trust, lies, survival—and the forms oppression can take. I also related to the author’s message in his Acknowledgments, as well as to how his perspective has shaped this story and how it was told:
I’m a child of immigrants, which means I live in two realities. Each is fully real and true and worthy of pride. And in both realities, I’m an outsider, neither at home in Nigerian culture nor American. There is pain in feeling excluded, of course, but there’s also power—it’s easier to see the forest fire from outside the forest than from within.
Perhaps because the work is on the shorter side even for a novella (though the story felt just the right length), I find it hard to describe just how clever the writing is without going into too much depth on the actual plot and twists. Suffice to say that the story, the world, and the characters feel sprawling and on an epic scale, and the plot itself is smart while not hiding too much from the reader. It follows Tutu, a young boy on the verge of becoming thirteen, which is when one’s tongue is cut out to appease the Ajungo Empire, in an act of tribute that ensures the Empire continues to bring precious water to Tutu’s hometown. However, even with this “price” paid, there is never enough water in the City of Lies, and so he sets off into the Forever Desert to find enough water to save his mother from dying due to the lack of it.
In doing so, he also takes on an ages-old quest. Orulu, the oba at the time when the Ajungo’s oppression began, called on the children too young to have their tongues cut out to roam beyond their city and “find a new land with water, where they could build a new city, begin a new history.” After all, “It would only take one, he told them. Not an act of heroism, but a stroke of luck. One child who could stumble into the right valley or come across a friendly face. Even a child deemed a liar could find someone to trust her, Orulu believed.” Yet hundreds of years have passed since this declaration. While there are no heroes in the City of Lies, just as there is no water, and no friends beyond this city, Tutu is determined to be the one who succeeds.
By situating his main character as a bit of an outsider, with Tutu enjoying learning and lessons but bullied by his peers, Utomi is able to set the stage for his story: Tutu is very much a part of his world and society, yet different from the rest and perhaps with a slightly different perspective. There is a powerful line from Tutu’s mother in the first chapter that encapsulates the novella’s themes while also fleshing out Tutu’s characterization: “You must learn … Only by learning can you free us.”
To depict this process, Utomi brilliantly utilizes cyclical storytelling, and creates a story that is interwoven with fable. There is much repetition of the accepted norms of this world (there is no water in the City of Lies, there are no heroes in the City of Lies, there are no friends beyond the City of Lies); scenes reflect prior scenes, words reflect prior words, and the end result is quite compelling. There is poetry built into every word, every page, throughout the entire story. Even the use of italics in certain passages only enhances the plot and this sense of a story within a story. Naiveté is stripped away as Tutu matures throughout his journey, as he gains more knowledge and begins unravelling the lies that have defined his entire life.
Characterization shines in this novella, with each character and their relationships with one another feeling fully fleshed out. This also means that when things happen to these characters, or their relationships, it hurts that much more. There is a weight to the characters we meet, from Tutu to his mother, and on to the companions—Asilah, Lami, Funme—that he meets along the way. I especially liked how the themes of family, and mothers, were showcased throughout. Each character that we meet brings a lesson, or unearths part of a wider truth. This is also where the worldbuilding truly makes itself known, adding to that weight and significance and ensuring that both elements work in tandem to enrich the narrative.
While this is generally the role of worldbuilding in fantasy—to help shape character and the plot while also contributing to the story’s themes—it is not always executed in as satisfying and convincing a manner. However, in The Lies of the Ajungo it is able to fulfill that role beautifully. I was amazed at how clearly and ingeniously the lives of Tutu and the rest within the City of Lies are very much determined and shaped by the environment, how the price exacted by the Ajungo changes how people communicate and exist in the world. It hurts, and feels so real, when Tutu does not allow himself to cry because tears are water, and water is precious. Sign language, too, is an integral part of the story in more ways than one. This becomes even more apparent as Tutu discovers the world outside of his own city, and as it becomes clear that not all is as it seems. Even the magic in this story, and how those wielding it act in this world, is very much tied to the novella's themes and the metaphors.
Starting from that simple-but-difficult journey— to find a new land with enough water for Tutu’s mother and the rest of his city—the world’s layers are slowly shown and uncovered. The narrative is written in such a way that the reader is able to see that something is wrong from almost the beginning, and the questions and strangeness keeps building: why are there skeletons of children everywhere in the desert, and why do people looking as if they came from Tutu’s city try to kill Tutu when he is on a quest approved by his oba? Most importantly, who are the Ajungo, and why do they demand their grisly price? When the twists are revealed, and the lies unraveled, the simplicity of the truth and the reason why the lies were believed is quite simply breathtaking—and yet I was not able to figure it out until Tutu himself did.
What struck me most about the story is just how impactful and timely the key themes and messages are. What the Ajungo are, why they are doing this and how: I saw much of our own world, our own oppressive systems, and those who have everything taken by them, within the metaphors woven by this story. However, just like any good fable, there is also hope: we have the capacity to be open-minded, despite the lies we might have been told our entire life. There is power that comes from standing together, saying that enough is enough, from having nothing else to lose, and the hope of creating a better tomorrow. The rage and sorrow and bitterness and unfairness, and the cyclical nature of who the villains and the heroes are, find space for change.
The Lies of the Ajungo is undeniably heavy, tackling difficult themes and not shying away from the violence and horror that Tutu and the friends he meets undergo. It does not shy away from the sheer unfairness of having to suffer that violence and horror in the first place. Yet it manages to be hopeful, to have moments of solidarity and kindness and growth, and while the ending is bittersweet—especially in light of the blurb for the second book in this series—it is a tone that perfectly reflects this poetic, epic yet intimate, tale.