Saunders' novel fuses the narrative style of fantasy fiction with a pre-colonial, alternate Africa. Inspired by and directly addresses the alienation of growing up an African American fan of science fiction and fantasy, which to this day remains a very ethnically homogonous genre. It addresses this both structurally (via its unique setting) and thematically (via its alienated, tribeless hero-protagonist). The tribal tensions and histories presented in this fantasy novel reflect actual African tribal histories and tensions, and provide a unique perspective to current and recent conflicts in Africa, particularly the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing conflict in The Sudan.
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It begins with the reunion of Imaro and his kidnapped lover Tanisha, who has been taken to the ruined City of Madness. With the help of their newfound friend Pomphis, a Pygmay from the eastern forests of Nyumbani, they learn of the sorcerous forces that may have been behind the dark wizard that destroyed Imaro's youth.