Within the borders of Bassa, power — the maintenance of it, the rituals around it — is held fast by strict rules and a brutal caste system, generational expectations, and ambition.
While this may seem like a comfortably familiar epic fantasy setup, I was delighted to discover that “Son of the Storm,” the first novel in the Nameless Republic trilogy by Nigerian author Suyi Davies Okungbowa, is absolutely anything but.
Instead, ambition and intrigue cause surprises on nearly every page as characters reach for power in unpredictable and nuanced ways. More importantly, the novel purposefully reveals the lure of power and the generational impact of this intrigue, both from the perspectives of the powerful, and from the points of view of those who do not, will not, or cannot, hold power.
“Son of the Storm” defines these tensions clearly from the start, as a prologue whirls readers into a society already at a dangerous crossroads, at once reaching for new levels of power, and busy walling itself off from risk. The effect is rich, wild, and occasionally dizzying.
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Okungbowa signals that he knows he's taking the reader on a complex ride with each detail — from a beverage that tastes like several places that should not be together (a wonderful effect), and careful attention to nuances of fashion and society throughout Bassan streets, to the multiple points of view.
This is a novel that exists beyond its pre-colonial inspiration. Based in West African culture, the world that encompasses the city of Bassa, as well as the Nameless Islands, the grasslands, and the mysterious forests beyond Bassa's borders, more than defies expectations. It stretches beyond the boundaries and fences that fantasy has placed in its way.
What Bassans know, from experience and education, is that they live at the heart of power, a people stronger than those of all surrounding territories. From Bassa's legends, celebrations and politics, to its forbidden manuscripts, side-alley dealings, and especially its fences and drawbridges, the country exists to exert power over others, to draw dividing lines between those who are powerful and those who are not. And the young people of Son of the Storm, including Danso and Esheme, who are studying Bassa's laws and stories, are set to become, to the delight of their parents, the most powerful of all.
What Danso, caught between the caste in power and those without power, almost knows is that he wants none of it.
It is a rare thing to be able to manage a main protagonist who stubbornly refuses to protag, and Danso — and the reactions of those around him — carries the reader through the novel. We can see his flaws, and, over time, his potential, just as he discovers it himself.
To be honest, I initially found myself empathizing with Danso's intended, Esheme, for having to manage in the face of his mistakes. But as the story unfolds, Okungbowa asks readers to look closely at the reasons why we are drawn toward a strong character like Esheme, while we side-eye a character like Danso, and to examine our own feelings about power, and powerful people.
While drama between those two unfurls, Lilong, a Nameless Islander, is cutting a path through Bassan territory, seeking her family's own source of power. She is a warrior on a quest and has no doubt as to her goals — even when they intersect dangerously with Danso's and Esheme's. When she must decide whether to give up some of that power, we see the layers of her character too. And that's a joy.
When Danso comes to his own crossroads and makes a distinct choice, he breaks free of the power structures and expectations that have bound him. Because of Okungbowa's narrative framework, we are able to see the impact of Danso's transformation on those around him, including characters who do not have the ability to make their own choices. This is a solid decision for the novel, and mediates the more painful aspects of Basso's caste system — something that Danso must also work his way out of.
Okungbowa's control of power, relationships, plot twists, and politics throughout gets high marks. The narrative occasionally falters when the writing gets tangled up with a character's thoughts, but it recovers quickly, often because the characters rarely have time to overthink while they're occupied with surviving the fantastic setting and the regional monsters — human and not — that make “Son of The Storm” well worth exploring.
The world of the Nameless Islands hints in this first book at tremendous depths, so many that “Son of the Storm” rewards a second read to truly understand the political layers of the prologue. I already want to explore a number of side stories that I hope Okungbowa, both a novelist and short story writer, will spin in their own directions. I'm looking forward to seeing where we go from here — in part because the narrative leaves us once again at a crossroads (a satisfying one) where power is being managed in entirely different ways that are sure to make for more excellent stories.
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