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Literature / The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

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Ashé's children wish us well,
but never trust them, born of Hell.
TsimTsoa's by far the best,
for weal and woe, than all the rest!
from "Tower Song," chanted for skip-stone games in Great Olorum

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, published in 2015, is a novella by American author Kai Ashante Wilson. It is set in a fantasy equivalent of ancient Africa, with a smattering of Science Fantasy.

The story is told from the point of view of demigod Demane — known as Sorcerer — who in his effort to blend in among humans is second-in-command of a mercenary band employed by a merchant named Suresh l'Merqerim. Suresh wants them to accompany him as far south as the famed city of Olorum and promises them a hefty pay upon arrival at its gates. However, to reach Olorum they would have to cross a jungle known as the Wildeeps, through which only one safe road exists and to leave that road means certain death. Worse, Demane suspects that a terrible beast from his homeland, the jook-toothed tiger, has made itself at home in the Wildeeps and it has no obligation to respect the road's boundaries.

Of an even bigger concern to Demane, however, is the band's enigmatic Captain Isa — and Demane's secret lover. In a company of mercenaries such as theirs is one, being found out would not go over well, especially since Isa — generally known as just Captain — also has to hide his own heavenly descent; and he has a far more difficult time doing so, for his voice is so beautiful he cannot speak but sings, and his hair takes nourishment from sunlight.

Demane has to navigate his frustration with being unable to acknowledge his relationship with Captain, keeping the brothers in check and striking a balance between his human and divine heritage.

The novella A Taste of Honey by the same author is set in the same world as The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguously Bi: Two of the relationships Demane has been involved in so far have been with men, including his first love, but he also mentions almost marrying a woman at some point, and expresses some regret about not having done so. Though it's not entirely clear whether he loved her or it was just a 'she's been courting me for a year, that's got to mean something'-thing.
  • Anachronism Stew: The story itself is set in a time reminiscent of the Roman Era and the action itself happens in a fantasy equivalent of the African continent, where warriors use spears and swords are an exotic thing. However, the language the brothers use among themselves is flat-out modern hip-hop slang — or modern French, in T-Jawn's case — and not only is Demane knowledgeable in modern genetics and medicine, there's mention of existing, practical faster-than-light and interplanetary travel.
  • Animalistic Abomination: The jukiere, or jook-toothed tiger, from Demane's homeland is some kind of animalistic, necromantic sorcerer in the form of a green-furred tiger, with Super Speed, Super Strength and a Healing Factor thrown in. It eats only pigs or people, but only when they're particularly fresh and likes its hide-out to stink to high heavens of death and decay.
  • Bag of Holding: One of the artifacts Demane inherited from his Aunty is a small belt pouch that is much, much bigger on the inside. When he leaves the amir's service unannounced, he takes everything that's not nailed down at his quarters with him, but the guards later swear he left the palace with only a pouch at his belt.
  • Character Tic: Captain has a tic where he constantly, whenever he thinks that nobody's watching, checks if his head scarf is still in place and as tight fitting as always, showing not one strand of hair. It drives Demane mad, who thinks the scarf sits tighter than a virgin's drawers and besides, the repetition is likely to draw more attention to the gesture than Captain would ever want.
  • Death Seeker: Captain, haunted by his Dark and Troubled Past, is implied to be one. During a training exercise with Demane, he deliberately fails to dodge a spear strike that would have been lethal if Demane's reflexes hadn't been good enough to miss at the last moment. During the fight with the second jukiere, he deliberately stops fighting and allows his own death to be the distraction that gives Demane an opening to attack it.
  • Death World: The first world Demane and Isa end up in upon leaving the road through the Wildeeps in pursuit of the jukiere, or at least what they see of it, is a vulcano about to erupt. They quickly hightail it out of there.
  • Desert Bandits: On their way to Mother of Waters, the brothers are ambushed by the Desperados, a gang of desert bandits who prey on merchant caravans and evidently thought that twenty-five mercenaries could be quickly dealt with.
  • Double-Meaning Title: 'Sorcerer' is not just Demane's nickname among the brothers, the jukiere haunting the Wildeeps is also a kind of animalistic, necromantic sorcerer in the form of a tiger. Additionally, in the end of the book Demane has to remain in the Wildeeps until he manages to kill the other jukiere within the jungle as well, effectively making him the Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.
  • Downer Ending: The book ends with what looks like an Ambiguous Ending, but upon closer inspection it's heavily implied that Isa dies at the hands of the second jukiere because he is, for a split second, distracted by Demane arriving at the scene, and Demane is unable to heal him. So Demane has to stay back at the Wildeeps until he has tracked down and killed the remaining jukiere, possibly also dying himself in the process, as the first, older jukiere already took almost all he had to kill. And he has to deal with feeling responsible for his lover's death.
  • Dream Sequence: Demane has several, most likely due to his divine ancestry.
    • When he is running down south to scout the road through the Wildeeps, the monotonous act of running makes him reminisce about his divine heritage and how he can never truly to use it to its full potential. He slips into a dream sequence in which he flies as a stormbird would, only snapping out of it when he reaches the Crossings river.
    • While trying to stop Captain from beating some unruly brothers as punishment for misdemeanor, Demane briefly touches Captain and is promptly snagged into a vision of corpses rotting by the sea, the smell of which indicates Captain is among them. Before he can think more about it Demane snaps out of it, however.
  • Eldritch Location: The Wildeeps, which is short for Wild Deeps, as it turns out, is a largely impassable jungle through which only one safe road exists. Said road changes locations almost by the hour and to step off it means certain death, reputedly by the hands of monsters that live in the Wildeeps, but actually by getting lost between worlds, as the Wild Deeps are a place where unnumbered universes and times intertwine.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Captain's introduction to the story consists of him conducting a training session for the entire band of brothers despite the sweltering heat and in sight of an oasis. Demane muses on how Captain is perpetually tireless, always ready to reward seeming laziness with training, but also how he actually does this to the brothers to enable them to better protect themselves in case of an attack.
    • Faedou is introduced as being unable to take part in the training because he refuses to let Demane treat his injured, already infected leg. He trusts in God to save his life and calls Demane's skills witchcraft, establishing him as the old superstitious gossip slinger of the band.
    • Cumalo does not even blink when Demane asks him to guard his pack while he's off training. Everyone else in the band is scared of Demane's witchered equipment, but Cumalo's laissez-faire attitude is beyond that.
  • Grass Is Greener: Demane has found he's not a particular fan of war and violence, so he often thinks about the peaceful place he came from. He even calls the place nothing other than 'the green hills'.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Captain likes to affect to have one. When Serush dares to protest his taking a break from unloading wares, Isa whips around and flings a barrel in his general direction — upwards, towards a balcony.
  • Healing Factor:
    • Captain heals injuries others would suffer from for weeks within days or even hours, and they don't leave scars behind at all. During their stay at Mother of Waters, he comes out of the Fighthouse victorious, but also limping, bloody to the bone in places and with one eye swollen shut. By evening of the next day, only some scabs are left over from that.
    • Demane also heals faster from injuries than normal people, although he remarks how his Healing Factor is nowhere near as good as Captain's.
  • Living Lie Detector: Demane can tell whenever someone is lying thanks to clues he takes in through his superior sense of smell.
  • Love at First Sight: Demane remembers meeting Isa in a market square in Philipiya and immediately offering him to come sleep at his place in the amir's palace instead of the travelers' barracks. When Isa just as immediately tells him his full name and takes his hand, they both know it's true love, and Demane gives up his post at the amir's court to become a mercenary at Isa's side.
  • Magic from Technology: The gods who were Demane's and Captain's ancestors are implied to have been visiting aliens whose magic was advanced technology; a lot of the words Demane struggles to translate when he's trying to explain things are technological ones, touching on medicine, genetic engineering, faster-than-light travel, and the like.
  • The Medic: Demane says he's always had an inclination towards medicine. He acts as the band's medic, anyway, and has — thanks to his Semi-Divine heritage and superior sense of smellmodern levels of medical knowledge. Additionally, thanks to the aformentioned heritage, he is able to secrete a poison that in small amounts can act as an anaesthetic.
  • Men Don't Cry: The cultural norm in the northern lands, where the story takes place, is that men don't show emotions, never mind crying. Demane is appalled at such ignorance, as where he's from everyone is allowed to cry. When Cumalo, one of his friends in the band, dies, Demane has to stow away his grief entirely or be looked down upon.
  • The Nose Knows: Due to being Semi-Divine, Demane has a superior sense of smell, making him a Living Lie Detector and a Scarily Competent Tracker. He can also smell whenever someone's sick, which is handy as he's acting as the band's medic.
  • Physical God: The Ashëans are said to have been Physical Gods who'd live in enclaves and were often associated with certain nations and/or people. Demane claims they've since abandoned their towers and become light, leaving their Semi-Divine offspring behind.
  • Rage-Breaking Point: Demane is not a fan of being called 'my nigga', as he points out on several occasions. But the brothers persist in doing so anyway, until Barkeem does it while Demane already is visibly in a bad mood and gets a jug of wine not just kicked, but exploded, right out of his hands for it.
  • Running Gag: The lack of appropriate words — to his knowledge, anyway — to translate complex medical concepts from Demane's mother tongue into that of the northern lands is remarked upon a couple of times, with escalating proportions. It begins with him admitting that "good juju" is not a good way to express "panaceaic endosymbionts" and ends with Demane muttering entire sentences in his mother tongue when trying to make others understand the downsides of smoking random shit.
    Demane: "Qaïf poison, very dangerous. It's [an insult to the homeostasis of body and mind]. You understand me?" Well, how can they, fool? You're speaking half in your own language!
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Demane is known as the best tracker in the band. Unbeknownst to everyone else, that's because he can use his superior sense of smell and Hyper-Awareness instead of just poking around in the dirt.
  • Secret Relationship: Demane and Isa have to keep their relationship secret as homosexual relationships are a no-no in the northern lands (and much of the rest of the world). Demane is eternally frustrated about the lack of quality time they manage to steal away for. Eventually, while on the road through the Wildeeps and in the middle of a jukiere-conjured winter, Isa snuggles up to Demane for warmth in the dark and Demane realises that Cumalo either knew of their relationship or has just put the puzzle together, for he makes a pointed 'victory'-gesture towards them.
  • Semi-Divine:
    • Demane is a demigod, though that's a tenuous descriptor as he admits himself, considering he is seven and five generations removed from his truly divine aunt on his mother's and father's sides, respectively. Aunty claims he's nonetheless stronger than anyone she's seen in a couple generations, and his divine heritage allows him to work minor miracles. He also has Super Strength, a superior sense of smell, can see in the dark and can control his metabolism to an extent. All of this has earned him the moniker 'Sorcerer'.
    • Captain is, according to Demane, way closer to the divine than Demane himself. His Super Strength is superior to Demane's, as is his Healing Factor. He has Hyper-Awareness as well, his voice is so beautiful he cannot speak but sings and his hair can drink sunlight, which is why he keeps it hidden.
  • Super Strength:
    • Captain, despite looking rather unimpressive, is the strongest man in the band. At one point he takes up a half-full barrel and hurls it upwards to a balcony just to show Suresh his displeasure.
    • Demane, though not as strong as Captain, is still a demigod. When he means to kick a jug of alcohol from Barkeem's hands in anger, he makes it explode instead.
  • Suppressed Rage: Demane collects quite a bit of suppressed rage because he doesn't get the desired quality time with Isa at Mother of Waters, and also because he feels that Isa is keeping secrets from him. It gets to the point where he snipes at the other band members for no good reason and even becomes violent.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Upon Cumalo's death, Demane desperately wants to mourn, but since Men Don't Cry in the northern lands, he avoids that by stowing his grief away entirely.
  • Vague Age: Captain's age is never specified and he gives off conflicting cues depending on the audience. It is unlikely that he's Really 700 Years Old, but Demane mentions that Captain's been in the mercenary business for a couple decades already. His looks are very vague, age-wise, and his behaviour is that of a hardened veteran towards the band and that of an occasionally insecure 20-something when alone with Demane.