Nathan’s review of The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
“They say there is no water in the City of Lies.”
With that opening line Moses Ose Utomi transports readers to a dark secondary world where water is so scarce that dying from dehydration is common. The peoples of The City of Lies are so desperate for water that they are willing to give up their tongues to the oppressive Ajungo in exchange for the precious liquid. There is little hope for change, as no other sources of water have been found, no matter how many young people have traversed into the Forever Desert.
Often times in fantasy we are always looking for longer books. It seems to be a commonly held belief that a fantasy novel under 100k words is incapable to balancing character, worldbuilding, and plot. And yeah, I will admit that a lot of time it is the big chunky books that stick with me because I dwelled for so long in those worlds. But Utomi’s novella, clocking in at around 2 hours of reading time, challenges the belief that to be better in secondary-world fantasy that you have to be bigger. In this book, which is short even for a novella, Utomi envisages a world that feels complete and lived in, while taking us on a wonderful character journey. I cannot get this novella out of my head, and it is going to occupy a lot of my brain space for a while yet!
The main character in The Lies of the Ajungo is Tutu, a thirteen year old boy who quests into The Forever Desert to find a source of water to save his mother. One of the most fascinating aspects of this novella is that Utomi takes one of the most common tropes in epic fantasy, the coming-of-age narrative, and remixes it into something wholly different. Tutu starts the novella ignorant of the ways of the real world. He takes everything at face value and believes all of the adages and saying passed down from one generation to the next. He travels into the desert to bring water back to his people; he sees himself as the mythical hero figure, the Chosen One that will be worshipped for finally finding water.
But his dreams are quickly dashed as Tutu finds out that not everyone and everything is as it seems. Rather than seeing Tutu overcome adverse challenges and ascend to fulfill some kind of Chosen One role, we see Tutu has he becomes disillusioned with the world as his eyes are opened to what is really going on.
One of my favorite things about novellas as a storytelling vehicle is their ability to pull the rug out from under the reader. They are longer than short stories and so have more time to build out the characters and world, but are short enough that twists and turns don’t feel like the reader is being cheated or bamboozled in some way. Utomi uses the novella’s length and pacing to his advantage to not only keep things moving along at a nice clip, but also to shock, awe, and surprise the reader at many turns.
Throughout the novella, Utomi’s main theme is power. How do people gain power? How do people keep power? How do people manipulate and quell the masses to prevent questioning of that power? Many of the things Utomi explores in this novella are prescient to the situation in many of the West’s democracies – how are lies and political rhetoric (particularly xenophobia and the demonization of outsiders) programmed into our own political systems? I say this often in my reviews, but one thing I look for in a “five star read” is thematic depth and development; in other words, how the author uses the unrestricted imaginative limits of the genre to comment upon the social conditions we live in today. Utomi cleverly deepens his cultural critique as the world expands beyond the border of the City of Lies, and as Tutu broadens his own global understandings.
Sometimes with short stories and novellas it can feel like the entire “point “is the theme or the narrative twist. I know I felt this way (and to some extent still feel this way), and as a predominantly character reader I am often hesitant about shorter works. However, Utomi doesn’t allow theme or plot twists to get in the way of developing some great characters in a very short amount of time. Obviously, the star of the show is Tutu, who feels so layered in just the first few pages, and whose character arc is more emotionally satisfying than what other main characters take 14 700+ page books to accomplish. But Tutu is not alone. Through Tutu’s journey there at least 4 or 5 really well-developed characters that you will cheer and weep with/for (but remember – we don’t waste tears in the City of Lies!). The characters just leap off the page.
And all of this works for two main reasons. The first is that Utomi is really smart and considered in how he establishes his setting. As the readers we get enough of the history, culture, and ways of being in the world without feeling inundated. While readers who only read fantasy for the worldbuilding might find the setting a bit scarce here, I thought it provided a really nice backdrop that supported the characters and themes. The world felt complete without being overbearing.
And the other reason the novella comes together is that I was also completely swept up in Utomi’s prose style. Without being overwritten or flowery, Utomi evoked an oral, mythical style. Amongst many other reasons, this is a key element of why the book industry should support books written by POC authors. The Euro-American tradition has its own tropes and story-telling styles that have been passed down, but after a while all of these stories start to feel the “same”. And it is not just in who is being represented or the struggles the characters face (although those can start to feel restrictive and one-note as well), but there is also the style of storytelling. How plots are constructed, narratives are weaved, and characters are brought to life are closely linked to cultural understandings of myth, legend, story, cosmology, and worldview. They are closely linked to how stories are told in a society; the specific and nuanced ways story is integrated into one’s daily life. Utomi’s words and sentences, the very way he constructs the novella itself, not only matches the kind of story he is telling here, but also is just a different way of engaging with written stories than many other authors. Utomi is definitely not alone in this kind of story, but it is that kind of book where the first page indicates that you have gotten something “different” from the publishing norm. Hopefully more kinds of diverse storytelling and prose styles from different cultural traditions continue to be pushed and welcomed in mainstream publishing.
If you are a fan of P. Djeli Clark, Saara Al-Arifi, or CL Clark, you will definitely be drawn into Utomi’s world. I think I saw that two more novellas in this series are planned (Amazon already has a March 2024 release date for book 2), and I will be one of the first ones to pick up them up.
Concluding Thoughts: An emotionally gripping novella about how far powerful people who go to maintain their power and one young boy whose eyes are opened to the real world, Moses Ose Utomi wrote one of the most memorable reading experiences I have had in a while. In less than 100 pages Utomi brings to life an entire world, filled with fascinating characters, and relevant sociopolitical commentary. Readers should definitely consider picking up this book.