Son of the Storm
(The Nameless Republic Book 1)
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Orbit Books — May 2021
ISBN: 9780316428941 — Hardcover — 446 pp.
Though a scholar in training at the university of Bassa City, Danso itches for more than the typical Juri initiate. Within the walls of the ancient city, he hunts repositories for glances at forbidden texts the elite have secreted away. But, his gaze also goes to beyond the Bassai walls, yearning to know what lies beyond the Empire borders – wonders hinted at within the suppressed histories he’s dared read, mysteries seen glistening from the eyes of immigrants sworn to silence.
Danso is also physically atypical from those around him. He’s a Shanshi, one of mixed raced parentage with a lighter skin tone that the Bassai view as inferior. Though unable to ever attain the higher caste of society, Danso’s academic skills have placed him on course for a solid future, including arranged betrothal to Esheme, the head-strong daughter of Nem, an affluent woman who acts as the city’s leading Fixer, a tenuously powerful service that is one part feared and one part loathed by the Bassai.
Though on friendly terms, Danso and Esheme are opposites. The free-spirited and wistful Danso looks to horizons and mysteries beyond, with little sense of urgency or worry over immediate responsibility. Frequently late and disorganized, he bears a childish naïvety and aversion to facing discomforting truths that Esheme finds infuriating. With a parentage that also limits her social status in Basa, Esheme purposefully strides toward those challenges that stand in her way to greater power. And Danso is not necessarily a part of that plan. While Danso’s emotions can ultimately drive him to action, Esheme carefully suppresses her empathy from interfering with her ambitions.
The fragile coupling between Danso and Esheme strains further with the clandestine arrival of a stranger from the distant Nameless Islands to Bassa, a young woman named Lilong. Lilong is a Yellowskin, a people of dark-skinned heritage who are descended with an albinism mutation that lightens skin, eye, and hair pigmentation to an extreme of Otherness that long ago exiled them away from the Bassai mainland.
Lilong comes to the ancient heart of the Bassai Empire in search of an artifact that has been taken from her people, an ibor, a totem of bone rock that a wielder with inherent talent can use to channel supernatural feats at profound mental and physical costs. Lilong has one of her own, permitting her to change her appearance and track the totem to where it has ended up: the home of Nem and Esheme. Retrieving it and fleeing from Bassa, Lilong’s actions draw both Esheme and Danso onto separate paths that intersect with her own: three interwoven and transformative journeys.
Okungbowa models the continent of Oon and its Bassai Empire in the Nameless Republic series on the historical Benin Kingdom (Empire) of West Africa, and its city of Edo, later Benin City, eventually of modern day Nigeria where Okungbowa originally hails. (The Benin here bears no relationship to the present-day nation of Benin.) In this he creates an epic fantasy world filled with details and populated with characters that come 100% from West African root inspiration, a diversity of cultural and ‘racial’ elements from within a region that too often is viewed monochromatically by outsiders.
Such focus on West African diversity appears right at the start of the novel in a prologue set right at the literal intersections of political and cultural realms within Oon. Events are triggered in this setting to propel the plot threads of Son of the Storm that then entangle Danso and Esheme in Bassa with Lilong’s arrival. The opening third of the novel works hardest at the world building, most notably the class and ethnicity differences that define Bassai societal structure and views on immigrants. These reveal how such cultural struggles, injustices, and arbitrary ‘racial’ division is nothing remotely new to present day societies or immediate history. On the negative side, Son of the Storm does little to really subvert or transcend the Bassai racism or classism. Yet, I suspect this may be a theme that grows through the series to come.
That opening third of Son of the Storms is an essential foundation to the wonder and developments with the remainder of the novel. I found the pacing to be excellent throughout, but readers who find themselves not gripped by the start of the novel should not be dissuaded from continuing. The characters also start built of seemingly standard archetypes of epic fantasy, warriors, those on quest, those born into a familial destiny of changing the world.
However, Okungbowa does a fantastic job at developing these characters through their journeys, often subverting expectations of fantasy tropes. He balances well between the three main characters, making each of them compelling and flawed, yet capable of growth. As Esheme turns increasing into something more villainous and callous, Danso slowly progresses from innocence (and frankly, stupidity) into getting some sense knocked into him. Lilong changes from an isolated and wary force of anger and vengeance into a more trusting partner who can begin to see possible hope for the future.
The only critique I have for the characterization is in how Danso does often seem molded to obliviously succeed to help move the plot forward. His flaws may limit how quickly he progresses or limit the reach of what he ends up capable of doing, but the supernatural abilities he turns out to be able to command through ibor seems to rely on ‘inherent talent’ without adequate explanation (as of yet.)
The ‘magical’ elements of The Nameless Republic series are particularly fascinating. They revolve around the aformentioned ibor (essentially, this is ivory) as a conduit to the supernatural. Okungbowa makes a point on his blog that this is not an epic fantasy with magic. He distinguishes magic from things supernatural, with ibor being a link to other realms. It may be a semantic issue, but Okungbowa has a lot of interesting notes on the background to the cultures of Oon on his website, and it’s well worth checking all this detail out after reading Son of the Storm.
Son of the Storm succeeds for me because of its rich characters (even secondary ones like Nem – or Zaq, a loyal muscled giant who serves as indentured servant in Danso’s family – become absolutely captivating. It also succeeds in how well it ticks all the boxes for what one might expect from an epic fantasy, while remixing them and casting them with inspiration from West African history to make it all significantly fresh and captivating. Okungbowa also nicely plays with reader expectations for who the protagonist ‘hero’ or antagonist ‘villain’ for the novel (and series) will be, with the trio of connected characters who have elements of each within them.
Warrior of the Wind, the second novel in the series was originally slated for release sometime around now, Summer of 2022. However, latest information seems to be that it has moved into 2023. So there is still plenty of time to catch up on things with Son of the Storm, if you haven’t gotten to it yet. Or if you already have read it, in the meantime for any Stranger Things fans, Okungbowa has a YA novel soon out, Lucas on the Line, writing as Suyi Davies.