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Griots (edited by Milton J Davis and Charles R Saunders)

51ZVI7hynML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Griots (2011) is a 'sword and soul' anthology, edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders. The origins of the anthology - and the genre - are explained in the introductions penned by both authors. In a nutshell, both gentlemen are fans of sword and sorcery fiction, Robert E. Howard and the like, but grew increasingly exhausted with the racism and Western essentialism engrained in the stories. Saunders grants that Robert E. Howard and his contemporaries were 'products of their time', but also notes that 'racism... was an integral part of the popular culture of the early decades of the twentieth century, and as such it pervaded pulp fiction'.

At times, Saunders writes, he could 'let it slide'. But he was also motivated to show that the 'non-stereotypical Africa of history and legend was just as valid a setting for fantasy stories as was the ancient and medieval Europe that served as the common default'.

The editors of Griots describe how they went about, not just creating their own stories, but also finding those by other authors. "There must be more", Davis writes - with these four words kept propelling him both to seek out other authors and also to write his own adventures.

The introductions alone are worth the price of admission, being fascinating essays both on the importance of representation in genre fiction and the laborious (but rewarding) process of discovering it. But Griots shows as well as tells - the anthology contains a dozen entertaining, swashbuckling, most swordful, sorcerous and soulful, fantasy stories as well. 

Although all of stories in Griots are worth reading (something rare and wonderful in and of itself), there were a few that really stood out for me.

Milton Davis' own "Mrembo Aliyenaswa", in which the warrior Changa fights his way through obstacle after obstacle to rescue a kidnapped woman. Particularly interesting in the way it examines honour and society: Changa, a freed slave, is an outsider, with his own perspective on what duty entails, and what defines both success and power.

Maurice Broaddus' "Lost Son", a story within a story about a young warrior and his quest to unite the clans. And, I suppose, intriguing contrasts in the ways to seize power - from manipulation to honesty. Broaddus is one of my favourite short story writers working today.

P. Djeli Clark's "Skin Magic" features Makami, a thief on the run. He's possessed of strange, uncontrollable magical forces, ones that some bounty hunters would dearly like to claim. The story introduces a compelling magical system and hints at a world of complex politics and magical societies. Moreover, the Makami's (reluctant) quest for redemption makes him a compelling character; a better man than he thinks he is. With its diversity of settings and Lovecraftian horrors, this story is particularly well-suited to fans of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Minister Faust's "The Belly of the Crocodile" is one of the weirder (Weirder?) selections. It is best described as a sort of parable, told from the point of view of a messianic character's (extremely) earthly brother. A compelling, and slightly disturbing, mythic narrative.

Carole McDonnell's "Changeling" is another story told in a different narrative style - this time with the tone and pace of a fairy tale. Iyoke is the third of three princesses, and although kind and loving, she is less desired than her two older sisters. The three siblings are all married off, receiving, more or less, the folklorish fates that they deserve. Except the story doesn't end there... the sisters become, against their will, rivals, forced to compete against one another. "Changeling" flows brilliantly from one conflict to another, always building on Iyoke's life and temperament. When it does end, it does so unexpectedly and powerfully, a fairy tale resolution that's in no way a 'happily after ever'. Or is it? 

Geoffrey Thorne's "Sekadi's Koan" is a fantasy coming of age story featuring Sekadi, a belligerent young woman undergoing weapons lessons at a mysterious school. There's a war alluded to in the background (with all sorts of interesting magical species and antagonists referenced), and Sekadi is keen to take part - to prove herself as a warrior. But when a new student arrives, one that casually bests Sekadi, she's forced to rethink her plans. "Sekadi's Koan" feels like the first few chapters of an epic fantasy, rather than a stand-alone short story. But judging by the rich world-building and the many plot hooks left sitting around, it'd certainly be an epic fantasy worth reading.

And, finally, Charles Saunders' own "The Three-Faced One". Imaro is Saunders' recurring character, a fierce warrior who is possessed of the strength of a god and a recurring compulsion to meddle in the affairs of others. In this case, Imaro has wandered to strange lands - lands so distant that he's not even recognised. He witnesses an odd exchange: one tribe handing over cattle and slaves to another. Despite being tired and in uncomfortable territory, Imaro can't resist getting involved. He learns that the two tribes compete in a wrestling match every year, with the loser required to give tribute to the winner. Initially a game, one of the tribes now has three-faced giant as their champion, and every time they win (and he always wins), the demands grow higher and higher. Imaro, of course, steps in... 

As warrior and wrestler, Imaro is a great deal of fun. But as a - for lack of a better phrase - 'tactful diplomat', he's even more interesting. He's navigating strange lands and stranger cultures, and is careful to respect their traditions while still, intuitively, striving to make things right. It is cleverly and thoughtfully done. 

All in all, one of the best fantasy anthologies I've read in a long time - a combination of gorgeous settings, terrific storytelling and intriguing heroes and anti-heroes. Perhaps what impressed me most was the diversity of types of stories. Griots included urban rogues and dungeon crawls, twisted parables and classic fairy tales, crafty folk tales and savage military fantasy. Saunders' objective - to prove that Africa is 'just as valid a setting' for fantasy stories - is well-served by this collection. Griots demonstrates not only that Africa is a rich and inspiring landscape for fantasy stories, but also that the authors exist to bring these stories to life.