We’re living in an exciting era for fantasy literature, with a lot of really interesting approaches to magical worldbuilding. But I’ve still never read anything quite like Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which was part the first batch of Tor.com’s new line of short novels recently. [Full disclosure: Tor is also my publisher.]
In Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, a team of mercenaries gets hired to protect a caravan of merchants traveling towards the famed city of Olorum. There’s just one problem: They have to travel through a dangerous, magical wilderness called the Wildeeps, through which there’s only one safe path, an enchanted road. And there’s some kind of horrid creature, that’s sort of a tiger and sort of a wizard, stalking travelers who dare to pass through the Wildeeps.
The main character of the book is Demane, whom everybody calls Sorcerer even though he hates that nickname—and he does have magical powers, after a fashion. The leader of the company is Captain Isa Johnny, whom everybody calls Captain, and Demane and the Captain have a relationship that goes far beyond leader and second-in-command, even though they can never acknowledge it publicly. But it’s foreshadowed from early on that to get their men through the Wildeeps, Demane may have to embrace his magical heritage and stop being entirely human.
A synopsis of Wildeeps doesn’t entirely do it justice, however. A lot of the meat of this novella has to do with the everyday lives of the men in the mercenary party. Wilson spends a lot of time showing what it’s actually like to travel with a caravan, providing enough details and enough character-centric moments to let you feel the grime and sweat of their existence. A bunch of the other mercenaries are described vividly enough to make you feel like they’re at least acquaintances.
What’s really unusual about Wildeeps, though, is the way it’s written. The language is a weird blend of very fancy literary writing, Martin-esque fantasy prose, and hip-hop slang, often smushed together in the same sentence. This weird mish-mash of styles should be jarring, or distracting, but instead the result is strangely intense and immersive, in part because Wilson infuses his hybrid style with a great deal of emotion. It’s so literary, it becomes pulpy.
And meanwhile, even though this feels very much like a Fritz Leiber-inspired sword-and-sorcery world, every now and then Wilson drops hints about creatures traveling faster-than-light by leaving their bodies, and a 24th chromosome, and other weird bits of super-science. It’s clear that the backstory of this world, which Wilson only gives us glimpses of, includes some kind of advanced scientific civilization whose works now appear to be magic to those living in it.
The bond between Demane and the Captain is at the center of the story, and it has all the makings of a great relationship story. If it never quite becomes enough of a fully-drawn relationship for us to obsess about in that way, it’s mostly a reflection of the world that Wilson is writing about—one in which the comradeship among men at arms subsumes all other bonds, and there are certain things that nobody talks about.
And in any case, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a really fun, exciting story about the kind of fighters that most fantasy epics rarely dwell on—the mercs in the gutter, who are just fighting for gold and dying in often completely pointless fashions. It’s pretty short, but might still take you a while to read because you’ll be marveling at all of that lovely prose, and also getting caught up in each moment of filthy, bloody adventure. It’s great to see a new story that shows that fantasy still has some really fascinating places to go.