The Dancers of Mulukau, is the second of Charles R. Saunders' books about Dossouye, a woman warrior whose background is based on the history of the women's army of Dahomey (now Benin). Saunders, best known for his Imaro cycle, began writing a short story cycle about Dossouye in the late 1970s; these stories were much later reworked into a novel published in 2008, thanks to the great revival of the "sword and soul" fantasy genre - African themed sword and sorcery stories - that Saunders pioneered.
First, a confession. I love Dossouye. She's a kick-ass fighter, and has no doubts about who she is or what she wants to be. She's intelligent, a competent strategist and tactician - no iron-thewed dunderhead here. She fights astride a freaking bull water buffalo trained for war. She lives by an internal code, and as she learns, her code adapts - flexible, open-minded, but with a solid moral compass. She's one of the great female warrior heroes of the fantasy genre, up there in my mind with C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry, Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen, Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion, Joanna Russ' Alyx, and Tamora Pierce's Alanna.
In The Dancers of Mulukau, Saunders is doing much more than telling the tale of a great hero and her adventures. He has crafted a story about difference and diversity and the necessity of acceptance and inclusion, even if it must be fought for, and about the chilling, crushing effect on creativity and inspiration of a way of life that demands that all conform to the One Truth. And, as always, he is countering the racist and imperialist lenses through which the West continues to view Africa and the peoples of the African diaspora.
As the novel opens, Dossouye, with her war-bull, Gbo, has travelled far from her homeland of Abomey, to Djarro, a trading city where no one has ever heard of her people, or of anything like a woman warrior. In his descriptions of Djarro and the surrounding lands and peoples - inspired by the historical trading empire of Timbuktu - Saunders reminds - or instructs - us about the diversity of real African history and cultures
Seeking employment, she tries to hire on with a mercenary company contracted to guard a travelling party of sacred dancers. Even after she defeats one of the mercenaries, they refuse to hire a woman - but Ukenge, the leader of the dancers, approaches her directly, hiring her as a bodyguard.
We soon learn that the Dancers of Mulukau are not ordinary entertainers. When Ukenge asks Dossouye what she knows about the Dancers, she replies: "... you are dancers, and you wield great magic, and you are said to be both man and woman in the same body .... Whatever and whoever you are, you must be extremely important people with many enemies to require an armed escort to get where you are going. In my country you would be called People with Name."
Ukenge adds to Dossouye's observations: "Our dancing is more than just entertainment. Our dancing has kyame - magic - in it. The gods and goddesses act through our dancing. Here in Djarro, our dancing enhanced the sorcery of the djiffares, to make certain that the buildings of the city will remain intact during the wet season.... In Khutama, where we are going next, our kyame will help to ensure that the wells upon which its people depend do not run dry."
Ukenge also explains that all of the Dancers are androgynes: "We dancers are not what we are by choice. We are born as we are. We are indeed both man and woman. ... In the old days children like us were killed at birth without remorse or question ... until one child was born whose mother and father did not want hir to die regardless of tradition. Instead of allowing her to be killed they took hir away to a faraway land called Ujini where others of our kind were known to dwell. As this child grew up the kyame of MawiLesi - the deity who is both man and woman - grew in hir and s/he discovered how to work hir kyame through dancing. Hir name was Mulukau."
Now, all androgyne children are brought to the Dancers hone base in Ujini to be raised as a part of their community. From Ujini, troupes of Dancers travel journey to many places to dance their magic to the benefit of all. However, they have enemies - a secretive people called the Walaq. As Ukenge explains to Dossouye: "The Walaq are fiercely intolerant. They believe that only they possess what they call the Truth, and that everyone else is unenlightened and deficient. They consider what we do and what we are to be hukuza - an abomination of their Truth that must be eliminated at all costs."
As the novel begins, the Walaq have mostly kept to themselves, only venturing out from their own country - which lies on the other side of a nearly impassable desert - to trade salt for other goods, though they have at times hired outsiders to harass the Dancers. But unknown to others, the leadership of the Walaq is in flux. Where their leaders in the past have maintained a strict isolation to preserve their purity, a new philosophy is emerging which would see the Walaq spread the message of their God to other realms and cleanse them of impurity. The Walaq have become dangerous - not just to the Dancers, but to the peace and security of the entire region, and to the new abomination the Walaq have learned of - the strange woman from afar who fights like a man.