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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).[1] 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.



[1]http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/dahomeys-women-warriors-88286072/

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I did a lot of catching up with various series in 2013. The Completed series:

David Anthony Durham, the Acacia series
Acacia: The Other Lands
Acacia: The Sacred Band

N. K. Jemisin, the Inheritance series
The Broken Kingdoms
Kingdom of the Gods

Christopher Paolini, the Inheritance series
Brisingr
Inheritance

Glenda Larke, the Mirage Makers series
The Shadow of Tyr
The Song of the Shiver Barrens

Charles Saunders, the Imaro series
Imaro: The Naama War

C. J. Cherryh, the Chanur Saga
Chanur's Homecoming
Chanur's Legacy

Elizabeth Bear, Jacob's Ladder series
Chill
Grail

Kage Baker, The Company series
Not Less Than Gods
(Probably the last, given Baker's untimely death)

Michael Thomas Ford, Jane Austen, Vampire series
Jane Goes Batty
Jane Vows Vengeance


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I follow a lot of authors who write both science fiction and fantasy series. New volumes in ongoing series read in 2012:


Tanya Huff, The Wild Ways

The second novel about the Gale family, whose women are strangely gifted and powerful and whose men - rare in a family of many sisters, aunties and nieces - are the embodiment of the Horned God. The full story of what and who the Gales are is slowly unfolding as Huff tells stories about its various members, and I'm sure there is more to come.


Lois McMaster Bujold, Lord Vorpatril's Alliance

Now that Miles Vorkosigan is settled into a title, important court function and family, Bujold has turned her attention to one of the people in Miles' inner circle. An improvement on Cryoburn, largely because the new focus lets Bujold play wild games with her characters again.


Elizabeth Moon, Echoes of Betrayal

This follow-up series to Moon's Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter series just keeps developing more and more twists and taking a wider scope with each volume. I'm thinking by the end that we will know a lot more about the history and future of this world, and that's a good thing.


Charles R. Saunders, The Trail of Bohu (Revised)

The third volume of Saunders' exceptional Imaro series was first published decades ago, and revised recently now that the new era of self-publishing has finally allowed him to complete the series. Although I had read the original version when it was first published, between revisions and the passage of time, thiswas very much a new book for me. And it sets up the coming confrontation between Imaro and his life-long enemies very well.


Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Burning Shadows

Somehow I never tire of the Count Saint Germain, warrior, healer, alchemist, vampire. This one is set in 5th century Hungary and Romania, where the Count faces the coming of the Huns.


Michelle Sagara, Cast in Silence
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Chaos
Michelle Sagara, Cast in Ruin

Finally almost caught up with Sagara West's Elantra Chronicles featuring Private Keylin Neya.


Todd McCaffrey, Dragongirl
Todd and Anne McCaffrey, Dragon’s Time
Todd McCaffrey, Sky Dragons

Fare thee well to Anne McCaffrey, creator of Pern and other worlds. I've been reading her work for most of my life, it seems, and while I have issues with her gender politics, still I can't ignore what a key figure she was in science fiction. And as Todd McCaffery cones into his own as inheritor of his mother's creations, I'm hoping to see more originality and more of the greater awareness of sexual and gender diversity and equality that he has been bringing to the series.


Kevin Hearne, Hexed
Kevin Hearne, Hammered
Kevin Hearne, Tricked
Kevin Hearne, Two Ravens and One Crow (novella)
Kevin Hearne, Trapped

Atticus O'Sullivan (born Siodhachan O Suileabhain), the 2000 year-old Druid with a sharp wit and enough magical power to take on a god or two, is one of the most enjoyable new characters I've encountered in some time. The Iron Druid Chronicles are fast-paced and truly funny. I hope Hearne has quite a few more brewing in the back of his mind.
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Gentle reader may recall my wrath and sorrow upon learning that the planned publication by Night Shade books of the third previously published volume in Charles Saunders' Imaro saga, and plans to publish new works in both the Imaro saga and in the Dossouye saga (beginning with a book containing all the previously released short stories about Saunder's bold and cunning warrior woman) had been cancelled.

Well, I'm a very happy woman again. Saunders has joined with Sword & Soul Media to release the last of the original Imaro books, The Trail of Bohu and brand new volumes continuing the series. And just as wonderful, the first of the Sword & Soul Media/Saunders releases is the promise collection of Dossouye stories.

Dossouye, by Charles R. Sanuders, is now available at LuLu.com.

Can you hear me dancing for joy?

Of course, I ordered the book the very minute that I discovered it was available. And counted the minutes until it arrived. and now I have my very own copy.

Saunders has extensively revised the first of the Dossouye stories, "Abegwe's Sword" to give the reader more of his hero's backstory. We learn how Dossouye was trained to be one of the women warriors of the kingdom of Abomey, how she saves her people but is forced to go into exile by treachery, and more about her family and culture. The collection also contains the other three Dossouye stories written in the 1980s, "Gimmile’s Songs," "Shiminege’s Mask," and "Marwe’s Forest," and the story "Yohimba's Choice" the Saunders wrote in 2004 for the second of the Dark Matter anthologies edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. And there is a new Dossouye story, "Obenga’s Drum."

Dossouye is a marvellous creation, for me even more so than Saunders' Imaro precisely because she is a woman, and Saunders does an excellent job of writing her, not as a "man with breasts," which is how some female fantasy warriors have been written, but as a warrior who is a woman - a subtle difference, perhaps, but a meaningful and welcome one.

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The Trail of Bohu, Charles R. Saunders

This was the last published volume in the magnificent fantasy series about the hero Imaro and his quest to rid the land of Nyumbani of the evil Mashataan, demons who seek to destroy him and to rule all of Nyumbani. Saunders had several more volumes planned, but the apparent lack of interest in a black fantasy hero whose quest is set in a world based on the land and cultures of Africa has now twice cut short the telling of the tale.

The Trail of Bohu is long out of print, and used copies can be pricey, but for those who did buy and enjoy Night Shade Press' recent re-release of a revised version of Imaro and The Quest for Kush, the story doesn't end in Kush, and this was the book that showed us where Imaro would have to go to complete his quest - and that told us just who Imaro was, and why this quest was his to shoulder.

Yes, I'm bitter. Just the idea of Imaro, a black hero, travelling through an African fantasy world, was exciting when Saunders' first stories were published. In the 30-odd years since, a reader still has to hunt for fantasy that's not set in a white universe. But at least I have all the Imaro that there was.

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Charles Saunders:
Imaro
The Quest for Kush

The vast majority of epic/heroic fantasy written in English draws on the history and cultures of Europe for its inspiration - and particularly, medieval and renaisaance Europe. There have been exceptions over the years, and it is a good thing to know that those exceptions are growing in number. There's now a fair amount of epic fantasy that draws on East Asian and South Asian cultures, and even some that draws on American, Australasian, and some other Aboriginal cultures. But there's still not a lot that draws on African cultures - except, of course, for Egyptian and some other Mideast cultures.

Which brings me to the writing of Charles R. Saunders.

Back in the late 70s and early 1980s, Charles Saunders began writing heroic fantasy with settings drwn from the rich and varied cultures of Africa. The vast majority of his characters are Africans, not white men putting, in some fashion, their stamp on an unknown land.

This material was very much in the vein of Robert E. Howard's heroic fantasy, but it was written about black heroes, situated in fantasy realms based on black tradition, culture, history and belief, and it came from the mind and heart of a black man. And you know how rare that is in the world of fantasy and science fiction.

Saunder's main heroic character was Imaro, a young man who grows up as a pariah among his own people but goes on to become a great warrior with an evident destiny. He also wrote a group of short stories about the truly remarkable Dossouye, a black woman warrior in a time when it was still rare to find a woman warrior at all in science fiction or fantasy.

Sadly, we have never been, and may never be, permitted to read the fullness of Imaro's quest, or Dossouye's story.

DAW books published the first three novels of what, according to various interviews and other sources I've read, would have been a series of five or six novels that brought Imaro through a succession of preparatory quests and tasks until he was ready to meet his ultimate destiny.

But for a number of reasons, one of which was the serious error of describing the fist book, Imaro, as a novel about the "black Tarzan" (aside from the lawsuit that prompted, how can a black man born in Africa be anything like Tarzan?), DAW ceased publishing the series after the third volume and Charles Saunders withdrew from the field of fantasy writing.

Recently, Night Shade books reissued the first two volumes, Imaro and The Quest for Kush, with the intention of publishing all three previously published books, as well as the final books of Imaro's quest that Saunders had never completed, and even (this made my heart leap when I heard it) a Dossouye book.

But that's not going to be, it seems. Once more, the market for fantasy about black heroes written by black writers has proved to be insufficient, for whatever reason. Night Shade has announced that it will not be publishing the third volume, The TRail of Bohu, nor will it be publishing any new books by Saunders.

At least I did my part. I now have on my bookshelf the freshly re-read first two volumes of Saunders' novels. It was a great joy to read them again, becasue there's something in me that does love a Golden-Age style swords against sorcery hero. But I mourn that I will likely never learn the end of Imaro's journey, and I'll likely never read anything more about Dossouye. And that's a real shame.

Although, she says in a faint and wistful voice, if you ordered Saunders' two Imaro books right now from Night Shade, and told them how sad you are that they are not going to publish any more of Saunders' books, and promised to buy anything of his they print if they'd only reconsider, well then, maybe...

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