Kai Ashante Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a complex and in some ways difficult novel (yes, it's sold as a novella, but is actually by length a short novel), but it is at the same time a brilliant piece of characterisation and worldbuilding, a master-class in character development, and a virtuoso example of suiting language to each shift in setting and context.
It is a simple story - a group of mercenaries, led by the Captain, Isa Johnny, are hired on to guard a caravan headed for the wealthy city of Olorum. Joining the company is the protagonist, and Isa's new lover, Demane. Much of the novel is taken up with the everyday lives of this band of brothers - weapons training, making camp, taking care of daily tasks, bantering and joking. As they travel, they encounter many people, places and dangers, finally ending up facing the greatest test of all in the mysterious jungle known as the Wildeeps.
Isa and Demane, we learn, are not quite human - in the past of this world, an alien species has built a civilisation, interbred with humans, and then moved on, leaving behind remnants of their technology and some lineages who have gifts and abilities that make them as demigods. Both are stronger and faster than most men. Isa has a voice that sounds like song, and tendrils in his hair that drink in sunlight. Demane can create selected biochemical compounds within his body and deliver them via a shapeshifting tongue. He is a healer, and to the men around him, he seems to be a sorcerer.
Through the stories of these two more-than-human men, Wilson examines issues of responsibility, leadership, power, and sacrifice.
It is through Wilson's gift for characterisation that, while we naturally learn the most about Demane, and about Isa through Demane's loving eyes, all the other men in the caravan are also full of life and individuality. They are all distinct, and real.
One of the ways that Wilson achieves this is through language. Demane is an outsider, from an enclave of humans with alien heritage. He thinks in his own language, and therefore the narrative portions of the book are constructed to reflect an educated and sensitive member of a scientifically and philosophically sophisticated culture. He is not fluent in the common language of travellers and mercenaries, he speaks their dialect imperfectly and struggles to express concepts from his own culture and personal knowledge. Others speak the dialect more or less fluently, often with an admixture of their own birth tongues. This is a polyglot world.
And now to address one of the common criticisms I've seen. Yes, the common dialect is loaded with vulgarities and swear words, and men casually refer to each other as "nigga." And this makes perfect sense to me. This is a world that is clearly inspired by black culture and history - African, and diasporic. And this is a male milieu, this story of soldiers for hire carrying out their latest contract. And this dialect sounds to me like a distillation of the examples I have known of the private speech of certain all-male subcultures, and certain all-black subcultures. And this highlights part of what Wilson is doing here - exploring aspects of black masculinity in a world that is essentially without white people or women.
Wilson has been highly praised for this work, and in my opinion, the praise is well deserved.