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Changa's Safari Paperback – January 4, 2011
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Changa Diop is the hero of Milton Davis' Sword and Soul series set in 15th century Africa Changa's Safari. He is the son of Mfumu, a king betrayed by his best friend, the usurping sorcerer: Usanage. With skills honed in the slave pits of Mogadishu, Changa works for the day where he can be avenged upon his family's enemy and free his sisters from their forced marriage to the dastard. Sounds like standard Sword and Sorcery fare, or does it?
Here's the thing, in order to obtain his vengeance, Changa sets out on an economic quest to raise capital. That's right, he isn't a mercenary, or a wandering do-gooder; he isn't a thief and while he does brood, it doesn't define him. Changa is the captain of a merchant fleet, which is brilliant, because it gives him an excuse to be pretty much anywhere the story needs him to be. And unlike his progenitors such as Conan, Solomon Kane, Elric or even Imaro; Changa is far from the superhero paragon of physical and mental acuity that we normally see in S&S tales. Oh, don't get me wrong, he's good, damned good, but he isn't perfect, he's been known to make mistakes and even (gasp) cut and run if the situation demands. And that adds a bit more to the likability of the character. And that is one of the things that make Changa stand out in the field of Sword and Sorcery. But a great character needs more than a winning personality and the ability to kick some butt.
First, one needs a supporting cast to compliment the hero, and the Changa tales certainly have that. He surrounds himself with a capable cast of characters, the sort of lieutenants that a successful trader would want around. The women aren't there to prove that Changa is virile and his side-kicks aren't in constant need of rescuing. They are fully fleshed out characters that we rarely get to see in S&S fiction. That's not to say that they are equals of the hero, it is Changa's Safari, not Panya's Safari, but they are more capable than most companions, save perhaps Moonglum.
And what Sword and Sorcery series would be complete without an exotic setting? Well, how about 15th century Africa? Ok, save historians whose dissertations were focused on pre-colonial Africa (you know who you are), who reading this can accurately describe the setting? Exactly. The Africa presented to us by author Milton Davis is a far cry from the Africa that we are taught about; Mr. Davis has researched his setting. More than anything, we are introduced to the diversity of a continent. From the deserts to the north with factions of warlords competing for resources, to the almost idyllic city-states (I did say almost) of Oyo and Cilombo, to the rich port of Mombasa and the slave pits of Mogadishu. Africa was never one people and one culture, it was and is a place as diverse as any other, to present it as monolithic does a disservice to Africa, to its peoples, and to the reader; fortunately for us, Milton Davis believes in diversity. The Safaris take Changa and his crew outside of Africa and we, as readers, are treated to the same diligence in research of the various ports of call as we are to the locales in Africa.
And that brings us to the last point, the little Sword and Soul that I have had the pleasure to read focuses on diversity. Not paying lip service to having a range of cultures, like in Howard's tales, Milton Davis' Africa is peopled with different cultures, customs and people of different shapes, sizes, religions, skin colors...and not one time is Changa's ancestry placed above the ancestry of anyone else. Usanage is from the same place as Mfumu! Is this an idyllic world? No, absolutely not, that would make for boring fare in any fantasy setting. There is conflict, the aforementioned Usanage is a powerful sorcerer who sends the disembodied souls of his victims trapped in the bodies of monstrous apes after Changa. There are spirits & dimensional travelers, artifacts that ensorcel the spirits of those who dare possess them, cultists and fanatics, professional rivals; many, many avenues of intrigue and conflict. What you won't see are people demeaned by the writing, no Solomon Kane fighting ape-men in the darkest reaches of deepest, darkest Africa.
And that is why Changa is important, these stories bring a humanity back to a genre that thrives on persecuting the other. They make one of my favorite type of tale better, by making them accessible to everyone. Nobody wants to read a story where not only can they not identify with the hero, but they are cast as the villain time and time again. It is the 21st century and it's about time we had the heroes that we want our children to read about and that we want to read, even if you have to go back to the 15th century to do it.
The prose has some nice descriptions, but spelling errors abound, distracting from the reading, costing the star a second star. As a sword and soul tale, many of the characters are from various African states, but we also get some Arabs—one a major character—quite a few Chinese, and a number of Mongolians. No LGBT characters though.