Remembering Charles R. Saunders—Imaro: The Trail of Bohu

This afternoon I learned of the death of Charles R. Saunders, the amazing sword-and-sorcery author who helped open up the fantasy adventure genre to Black heroes thanks to his series of stories about his characters Imaro and Dossouye. Saunders was 74 years old, and that’s still too young for such a tremendous talent. Like Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, another tragic death that hit us this week, Saunders was a vital figure in the creation of the modern Black superhero. (Edit: It appears Saunders died in May, but it only became public now.)

Saunders first started publishing in small presses in the 1970s. He was a fan of the work of Robert E. Howard, and like many fans he wanted to become a writer of his own sword-and-sorcery tales. But he wished to take a different approach from the authors who influenced him. From his introduction to the Night Shade Books’ edition of Imaro

Fantasy was not my only consuming interest at that time. I was also very much absorbed in African history, culture, and mythology. I can’t remember the exact “eureka” moment, but sometime in 1970, the Imaro character emerged from the depth of my subconscious, and his story demanded to be told.

Imaro would be the anti-Tarzan, and the setting in which his story unfolded would be an alternate-world Africa rather than an imaginary prehistoric era of the Earth we know, as was the case in Howard’s Hyborian Age and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Imaro’s Africa, which I named Nyumbani, would serve as an antidote to the negative stereotypes about the so-called “Dark Continent” that crept—advertently and inadvertently—into the fantasy worlds of far too many other writers.

As someone who is a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan, you might think I wouldn’t embrace an “anti-Tarzan.” But Saunders’s work is exactly what I love, because he exploded open an entire side of fantasy that few had even bothered to explore, creating a new subgenre he dubbed “sword-and-soul.” His stories of Imaro as well as the other African-themed fantasies he published during the ‘70s showed how much readers and writers gain when they expand their horizons. 

Unfortunately, the publishing world in the 1980s wasn’t fully prepared for Imaro’s arrival. DAW published the first two Imaro books, Imaro and Imaro II: The Quest for Cush, in 1981 and 1984. They were “fix-ups” combining previously published short stories and novellas. The first Imaro book written as a novel, Imaro: The Trail of Bohu, came out in 1985. But DAW turned down the concluding fourth novel because of poor sales. DAW made a number of marketing mistakes with the books, and Saunders admitted he was dilatory about completing the second book so that when it arrived on shelves, the first was already fading from public view. 

It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that Imaro got to make a comeback in trade paperbacks. The long-delayed fourth novel, Imaro: The Naama War, was published independently in 2009. Saunders made changes to some of the earlier stories, such as removing the novella “Slaves of the Giant King” from the first book because of its horrific similarities to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and replacing it with a new novella, “The Afua.” This led to a number of other rewrites in the subsequent stories. 

“My reasons for writing the Imaro stories remain the same,” Saunders wrote in 2006. “I am writing the stories I wish I could have read back in the day when I first encountered fantasy and science fiction.” We now live in a time where Black fantasy authors have made a titanic impact on the genre and are among the top stars in the field. Saunders played an important role in this: we’re better off for his existence, and we’re lesser now that he’s gone.

I never met Charles in person, but I did share occasional correspondence with him. He wrote me an email complimenting an article I had written on Black Gate about Robert E. Howard’s story “The Pigeons From Hell.” To receive a compliment from someone of his stature was humbling. Later I reviewed the fourth Imaro novel, and he wrote an email to thank me for my kind words about it. And “kind words” is a gentle way of putting it—I gushed about that book. It’s still one of the best sword-and-sorcery novels I’ve read. 

That wasn’t the first time I wrote about Imaro. One of my earliest articles for Black Gate was a review of the 2007 edition of Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush. As preparation for reviewing The Naama War, I did a write-up for the third novel, The Trail of Bohu, which I posted on my own website since Bill Ward had already taken care of the review for Black Gate

My Trail of Bohu review vanished when I junked the old website. In honor of Charles’s memory, I’m resurrecting it with some modifications. If you’re new to the Imaro saga, start at the beginning with Imaro and read all the way through to the end. I promise it’s one of the best fantasy trips you’ll ever take. Just writing this makes me want to rush back to those earliest stories and take the rich journey once more across Nyumbani.

Anyway, let’s hear from the 2010 version of me …

Imaro: The Trail of Bohu

Charles Saunders’s third book about the Ilyassi sword-and-sorcery hero Imaro was the first he wrote specifically as a novel rather than collecting previously published stories and novellas. DAW released it as Imaro 3: The Trail of Bohu, in 1985, and now it’s back (minus the “3”) from Saunders’ own Sword-and-Soul Media.

This third book in Imaro’s saga ups the stakes to involve the entire continent of Nyumbani in a titanic struggle, but Saunders keeps the battle on a personal level for his hero. The mysterious villain Bohu and Imaro are linked not only through a revenge story, but by the way they represent the greater forces aligned for the battle: the opposing gods known as the Cloud Striders and the Mashataan. The book keeps this balance of epic and intimate perfectly to make for constantly sweeping reading, even though the conclusion … well, I’ll get to that later.

The Trail of Bohu opens with the Erriten, the high sorcerers of the kingdom of Naama, preparing their battle against the other nations of the continent of Nyumbani at the behest of their gods, the Mashataan. They plan to strike at the heart of the kingdom of Cush, where Imaro, the Ilyassi warrior, arrived at the end of the previous book. Imaro has a destiny to play in chephet, the balance between the gods, and any plans the Erriten have must take account of the powerful warrior.

We catch up with Imaro five years after the end of the last book. He’s working in the Cushite city of Meroe as a blacksmith, but he yearns for action against the Naamans in the South. This has started to drive a wedge between him and his mate, Tanisha, especially since he wants his five-year-old son Kilewo to start the training of a warrior.

Suddenly, Kilewo and Tanisha are brutally murdered through the magic of the Erriten, and the enraged Imaro is accused of the crime and imprisoned. This is a gutsy move for the story, especially after the development of Tanisha in The Quest for Cush; it sends an enormous jolt through the reader.

But there is a greater game than the slaughter of Imaro’s family occurring, as the ruler of Cush, the Kandisa, reveals to him in a secret meeting. Chephet has been upset; the Erriten have an equivalent of Imaro, a force that upsets magic, and Kandisa gives this creature the name “Bohu.” It is Bohu who killed Imaro’s family. Kandisa frees Imaro to go after Bohu, and the wise dwarf Pomphis goes with him. The fate of the continent rests on Imaro’s vengeance.

The action follows Imaro on a voyage along the East Coast on the ship of his friend, the Zanjian captain Rabir, as chaos explodes along the shores from the vile machinations of Bohu. Bohu always keeps ahead of them, spreading destruction, but Imaro can track him using a pair of bracelets the Kandisa gifted him.

After a mutiny aboard Rabir’s ship, Imaro continues with only Rabir and Pomphis as companions. They enter Kitwana, a kingdom the Naama recently invaded, and join the exiled king Manjun, whose life Pomphis once saved. The Kandisa begins a diplomatic tour to bring the other kingdoms of Nyumbani together for the coming battle with the Naama, and Bohu’s plague of evil and chaos becomes greater and greater.

The story keeps the action and danger at a constant roil. The beast-men, izingogo, are fierce opponents and make for a thrilling action sequence when they descend on Majnun and his men. Another scene where the walking dead cling like barnacles to the bottom of Rabir’s ship and then swarm onto it is a superb piece of dark sword-and-sorcery mayhem. (The “let’s hide it out in the basement” idea is a nice nod to the original Night of the Living Dead).

But aside from the action, Saunders makes sure that another, more sinister threat faces his hero: Imaro must confront distrust among most people he meets. He is the center of the disasters besetting Nyumbani, so men who should be his allies are quick to turn against him. This keeps a boiling tension going even when there are no overt physical threats.

In some ways, The Trail of Bohu is akin to Robert E. Howard’s sole Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon. Both send their heroes on journeys to different corners of their continent, giving readers a sense of the breadth of the author’s conception. Like the best sword-and-sorcery, The Trail of Bohu combines a feel of historical realism—this seems like an Africa that could have existed in the pre-colonial days—and logical anthropology, and then mixes them with action and sinister magic. Although Saunders provides a glossary for some of his Nyumbani terms at the end, readers won’t need them; the sense they develop through context, as well as the fitness of the sound of the words, make them easy to understand.

Bohu himself (itself?) is an intriguing creation. He rarely appears on the page, and Imaro chases the after-affects of actions rather than discovering the villain himself. Bohu is a superb sinister force, a Sauron figure who doesn’t need to appear to seem terrifying. His powers grow throughout the pursuit, and he changes from a sneaky assassin to a creature wielding kingdom-shattering nightmare powers.

In the last quarter, Saunders throws in a radical twist necessary to get the book to an exciting conclusion. It’s usually at this point in many average novels—not bad, but not great—that the story slides into mediocrity because the author has exhausted their best ideas. Saunders avoids this problem. Imaro discovers a shock about his past in the country of Amanyani (“Zimbabwe” in the original publication), and this surprise sheds light on his destiny and his role in the battle between the Cloud Striders and the Mashataan.

It’s fortuitous to have this revelation near the finale, because The Trail of Bohu doesn’t really have a finale. Not an action climax, at least. It sets up a conclusion in the sequel, Imaro: The Naama War, and that unfortunately took almost a quarter of a century to see print. Saunders explained the inconclusive nature of The Trail of Bohu: “[The Naama War] was meant to answer the questions and tie together the threads spun in the previous three novels about Imaro […] For readers of those earlier volumes, the questions were left unanswered, and the threads dangled without resolution, because [The Naama War] was not published when it first was written years ago.”

It is disappointing that Imaro: The Trail of Bohu concludes with the great battle only starting. The title proves accurate, as we and Imaro only follow the trail of the mystery villain, and the epic confrontation never arrives. That Saunders manages to make the conclusion work by deepening the main character’s mythology is a great compliment to his storytelling talents. However, until The Naama War was finally let out of publishing limbo in 2009, The Trail of Bohu ended with some frustration. But no more! Imaro: The Naama War is here at last, and it’s a glory.Dangling conclusion aside, Imaro: The Trail of Bohu, is among the top tier of sword-and-sorcery novels and displays why Saunders is one of the finest authors in the genre.