Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a West-African-inspired fantasy involving a young man too curious for his own good, a woman too ambitious for the good of anyone else, and an outsider in a land far away from home simply looking to regain what she has lost.
Danso is a jali novitiate, a mix of a scholar-historian and bard at the University of Bassa. He’s clever, a quick learner, and is always asking questions, but he is also a naive troublemaker. As a result, he finds himself getting deeper into a conflict more significant than himself. His naivety can make him selfish without realizing it. He is on a quest for truth the nation of Bassa will not give him and fails to see how the truth can be painful, and a quest, not thought-through, can have consequences for others. The flip side of that is the blind optimism he often brings to conflict, wanting to see the best in people. This ideal is put to the test multiple times and whether Danso holds on to it.
Esheme, Danso’s intended wife-to-be, is Danso’s opposite. She is a megalomaniac villain in the making, and her rise is delightful and frightening at the same time if you care about Danso and Lilong at all. She doesn’t seek truth like Danso; she takes it for herself then bends it so that she may use it to her advantage. The daughter of the great city of Bassa’s fixer, Esheme actions aren’t the result of naivety like Danso, but fearlessness. Despite her becoming an antagonist, you want to see her get revenge on those who try to keep her down. Still, she does so in such a ruthless fashion that has you turning away, peaking at what she has done between two fingers and muttering, ooh not like that, not loud enough for her to hear. It’s not until the novel’s final act that she goes from someone standing up to her oppressors to a complete heel turn. She takes advantage of the suppressed to seize power for herself, going even as far as using language familiar to many readers of returning Bassa to a great nation that she can make great again. However, the way she sneers at and blames any immigrants within Bassa for the nation’s trouble may have been a clue early on of her direction despite whatever redeeming qualities as a character she may hold.
Lilong falls somewhere in between Danso and Esheme. Before that, it should be noted in Son of the Storm that all characters are inspired by African descent, so when it refers to very light-skinned people as “yellowskin,” it’s referring to people with albinism and not people of Asian descent. Lilong walks a path between Danso on her left and Esheme on her right. She’s distrusting of people, especially from Bassa. Still, She isn’t completely closed off from having compassion for others as she journeys with Danso. However, her conviction for her mission and people comes before all else. She is not as ruthless as Esheme, nor is she so soft-hearted as Danso. She constantly serves as Danso’s reality check to his unrealistic idealism. Still, she is not so much a buzzkill that she cannot admire Danso for his lofty hopes.
Both Danso and Esheme’s paths result from the systems in place in this novel. The Great City of Bassa uses the suppression of the truth and a cruel caste system to promote ethnocentricism. A caste system was dividing those by who was a mainlander of Bassa and an outlander, usually determined by the color of their skin. The further from Bassa someone was from, the lighter their skin is, as is taught to all mainlanders, and that meant the lower on the caste system they were with immigrants having to wear red anklets to distinguish themselves as outlanders, usually working as servants and guards of certain noble houses to earn citizenship. Being half-islander, Danso is often treated differently despite being half-mainlander and has to be careful in how he acts and his appearance to fit in at the University of Bassa, which is reserved for only the noble caste of Bassa. Danso wishes to be free of Bassa and the unfair treatment he receives but is in a position of privilege high enough that some of his selfish actions hurt people like Zaq, a second-class citizen, because of his desertland origins.
Esheme, however, is marginalized simply because her mother is of a lower caste and a well-known fixer, someone who makes illicit arrangements for other people. Instead of discovering empathy for others because of this disrespect, she turns a blind eye to it when convenient for her, such as with Danso’s background or any of those she associates with, to gain what she wants. Danso is on a quest to gain freedom from the systems of oppression and the lies Bassa uses to do the oppressing, while Esheme’s quest is for power, turning those lies and oppression into a tool for her to stir up hated within Bassa that’ll allow seizing control over those who have tried to control her. Lilong, being from the Nameless Islands and possessing a mineral called Ibor that gifted people who can use it with sorcery, is the catalyst that sends Danso seeking freedom and Esheme seeking power. Altogether, their stories make for interesting dynamics and exploration of the world’s politics.
Okungbowa’s Son of the Storm is a tale about truths and what one does with those truths. It’s about taking control of one’s destiny, whether through seeking truth or bending the lies of others to your advantage and the consequences of both. It’s a coming-of-age tale in the worst way, where one person grows to do horrific acts to seize what they want, and one loses everything seeking to know who they are. The world-building is fantastic, if not depressing. Its characters make decisions that feel authentic to who we learn they are, whether they are admirable, foolishly idealistic, powerfully ambitious, or dangerously evil. An epic fantasy well worth checking out.
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