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Nathan’s review of The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi

New to the Forever Desert? Check out my review of The Lies of the Ajungo (Book #1 of the Forever Desert) here!

Moses Ose Utomi has done it again. The Truth of the Aleke is another banger of a fantasy novella building off the bombastic foundation he set in The Lies of the Ajungo. If you were a fan of Ajungo, you absolutely need to pick up this sequel which further muddies the ethical and moral proverbial waters of the Forever Desert.

The Truth of the Aleke picks up 500 years after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo and follows Osi as he attempts to protect his home, The City of Truth, from the invading Aleke and his Cult of Tutu. I won’t say much more about the plot because, like with Ajungo, again nothing is at it initially seems and Utomi envelopes the reader in twists and turns, truths and lies.

As much as Aleke is as good as Ajungo, it is a very different book. In many ways it almost criticizes, in a very meta-way, the naivete of The Lies of the Ajungo in its storytelling and outlook. In my review of Ajungo I applauded Utomi for his fable-like prose and approach to storytelling. Tutu was an honorable hero, a young boy just trying to save his mother, and Ajungo had a clear message from Tutu’s story: political messages are powerful forces that have the power to quite literally manipulate and distort reality; question everything, especially those who have power and will do anything to keep it. I still love Ajungo, but The Truth of the Aleke made me realize how simple and one-note Tutu’s character arc truly was. This isn’t a criticism of Utomi or his writing; rather, it is a compliment because we needed Tutu and Ajungo to truly appreciate what Aleki offers.

And oof does Aleke offer us so much. This is a darker novella, and one that challenged me as a person more than most other books. Osi is not as immediately likable as Tutu, as his motives come across as much more selfish and self-serving. He wants power for himself, and this ultimately blinds him from the political machinations going on around him. Through Osi’s journey, Utomi explores so many of the great moral political quandaries of our day, exemplified no more truly than the current (as I am writing this review) war between Israel and Hamas. Utomi forces his readers to engage with the big questions: How does power corrupt even the noble of goals? To what lengths can we accept a person or group of people fighting for (what they see as) justice? What is the political good? Can anyone in power ever truly be good?

As Utomi pushes us into these tougher dilemmas, his storytelling style changes with it. Aleke is still beautifully written, but it loses much of the fable like quality of Ajungo. I don’t want to call it spartan, because this book is an absolute delight to read from a prose perspective, but it is much more “lived in” than the writing of the Ajungo. When I was reading Tutu’s story, I felt like I was watching events unfold from above, distant and all-knowing, almost as if the story was being told to me (as it was!). With Aleke I felt more on the ground with Osi in a way that was significantly more visceral. This was a genius authorial move by Utomi because in Aleke he explores the role of cultural mythology in the constitution of political power. I highly recommend re-reading Ajungo before you start Aleki because Utomi masterfully plays with and intentionally distorts the events of that first book as the events of Aleke unfold. Five-hundred years is a long time, something that most fantasy authors forget as most historical events in fantasy epics are passed down unchanged for millinia, and Utomi shows how even just small changes to historical fact can create brand new social memory for the benefit of the few.

This is a hard review to write because so much of the power of The Truth of the Aleke needs to be experienced with limited knowledge going in. All I will reiterate is that if you loved Ajungo, you will be floored with Aleke. It is a tougher book, a more challenging book, and a very different book, but ultimately is a better and more important book for it.

And if you haven’t picked up The Lies of the Ajungo yet, what are you waiting for? It was one of my top reads of 2023, and this sequel has also been quickly added to my all-time favorites list.

Concluding Thoughts: Eschewing much of the style of its predecessor, The Truth of the Aleke is a deeper, darker, and more ethically troubling novella. This makes it all the more powerful as we get to see the Forever Desert five hundred years after Tutu’s journey to find water and the secrets he unraveled. The political landscape is much changed, and yet Utomi shows us how at the end of the day nothing ever really changes with power and politics. Go on this journey with POV character Osi as Utomi will challenge you to think about the moral ambiguity between good and evil, all in a propulsive and compact novella packaging. I cannot wait for the third book in this series.

Thank you for reading my review of The Truth of the Aleke!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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