I had the opportunity to meet Milton Davis through the Black Science Fiction Society which I've already mentioned on this blog before. Not only is Milton the founder of MVMedia, a company aimed at promoting genre fiction based on African mythology and history, but he is also very active on the BSFS website, always encouraging new projects and often getting involved! I really don't know how he finds enough hours in the day to do all of this!
I'm also glad to say that Milton gave my first opportunity to translate a short story from French to English, something I'd never attempted outside university before! Anyway, it was about time I took a bit more of an interest in Milton's fiction (I'd only read a short story) and so when he offered to send me his sword-and-soul (this will be explained later) series, Meji, I jumped at the occasion. Now there was of course the chance that I wouldn't have liked the series at all... had that been the case, I wouldn't have reviewed the books here. But I'm glad to say that it wasn't the case. I've only read book 1, but I'm eager to get on to book 2.
And now, welcome to Uhuru, the fantasy world where Meji takes place...
Author: Milton J. Davis
Series: Book 1 of the Meji series
Original Publisher: MVMedia
Date of first publication: 2005
On the continent of Uhuru, in the grasslands of the Sesu, Inkosi Dingane is granted his wish. His Great Wife Shani bears him a son, an heir to his growing empire. But the ancestors have plans of their own. Shani bears him twin boys, meji, an abomination amongst the Sesu, but a blessing to Shani's people, the Mawena.
Thus begins the story of two brothers destined to transform their world. One brother, Ndoro, fights for his place among the Sesu, hoping to shed the stigma of abomination. The other, Obaseki, grows to a man among the Mawena, struggling with a gift that alienates him from his family. Both brothers are forced to seek their destiny, traveling through teeming savannah, mysterious forests, haunted cliffs and torrid deserts, fulfilling a prophecy that would change them and their world forever.
So what exactly is sword-and-soul? Charles R. Saunders who needs no introduction, explains this in his introduction to the second edition of Meji, Book One. As the great man himself says:
... The potential existed for the conception of many other variations on classic African themes. A limitless number of stories were waiting to be written by other authors. Consider the dozens, if not hundreds, of ways the legend of King Arthur has been retold. That's just one story, from one culture. African, with its hundred of cultures stretching back to the beginning of humanity, offers infinite opportunities for stories of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery - or, as I prefer to call it, sword-and-soul.
Sword-and-soul is similar to the sword-and-sorcery genre in the epic sense, but as opposed to classic tales of sword-and-sorcery, it draws its inspiration from African mythology and history. Most readers of the fantasy genre will appreciate this the same way they will appreciate other fantasy works that don't systematically features elements from Celtic mythology (i.e. elves, dwarves, etc.).
Truth be told, I've never been much of a fan of the sword-and-sorcery genre classic tales, be it Moorcock's Elric series or Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, both series I've started, struggled through the first books and never found to courage to finish. I never seem to connect with the characters and the lack of interesting and strong female characters doesn't help, but then neither did the plots that I always found too simplistic and made me feel like nothing was ever really at stake. I know these series have quite a huge number of fans out there, so I'm not trying to drag them down, but merely to explain why they didn't work for me and why Milton's Meji did.
The African setting is one thing, but you can't build a series on setting alone, no matter how well you've done your research. And Milton obviously knows his subject and I'm glad he places bits and pieces of his knowledge throughout the story and not in huge info dumps.
As you may have guessed from the blurb, the story involves several different tribes, each has its own language and customs depending on its particular history and the geography of its settlement. This is one of the things I enjoyed the most in this first book; being introduced to all these different people, their folklore and religions, and seeing them interact and clash at times. These political and economical elements are ever present in the story, making for some nice political intrigues and games of power.
Another point that distinguishes Meji from a lot of works of epic fantasy is its characters. There are the twins, yes, but they were not the most interesting characters in my mind (it's probably because book one mostly describes their upbringing and serves as a set up for what's to come in book two). I especially appreciated the character of Inaamdura, who reminded be of a more sympathetic version of G.R.R. Martin's Cersei. In Martin's books, you hate Cersei, you hate her children, you simply want them out of the picture and know that nothing good could ever come from them. In Meji, you understand why Inaamdura does what she does and truth is, you can hardly blame her because in her position, you'd probably do the same to protect your own, even if it means hurting one of the main characters. She's an ambitious, beautiful woman, an expert manipulator who's not afraid to take what she wants. So few ambitious female characters are portrayed in a positive light that it's worth mentioning.
I'm also a fan of the twin's father Dingane, who's not the cliché savage you may initially think him to be. The Sesu people have grown under his rule and there's a good reason for that. Another one that I'd wished we'd seen a bit more is the ruler of the Mawena, the twin's grandfather, who's bound by protocol and tradition and not really free to do as he pleases or allow his grandson to do as much.
Meji is a complex and rich tale of which I've only read one installment! I can't imagine what's to come, but I'm eager to discover. I found it to be a much more enjoyable read them most of the sword-and-sorcery I've read over the years because, despite taking place in a fantasy world, it takes into account questions of race, gender and politics that are part of human behavior and society. That, to me, is the book's real asset.
So yes, I recommend it.
Milton has just published his third novel, which is not part of the Meji series. It's entitled Changa's Safari and is more action-oriented it seems from the trailer, inspired by the 15th century spice trade. It seems that Milton J. Davis has a lot of stories to tell, let's hope he continues to tell them for a long time...