Maya C. James Reviews The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

The Lies of the Ajungo, Moses Ose Utomi (Tordotcom 978-1-25084-906-9, $19.99, 96pp, hc) March 2023. Cover by Alyssa Winans & Christine Foltzer.

Indebted to the wicked Ajungo Empire, all citi­zens of the City of Lies have their tongues cut out when they turn 13. Not only do they sacrifice their blood, but their history. In return for their tribute, they receive just enough water from the Ajungo to keep themselves alive, and nothing more. But when Tutu’s mother nearly dies from dehydration three days before his tongue-cutting, and the arrival of the next batch of water, Tutu offers to do what no others have done before him: find enough water for the entire City of Lies.

Tutu requests that the city’s tongued-leader, Oba Ijefi, provide his mother water for a year. He will bring back enough water not only for his mother, but for the entire city – a task that many young children his age have taken up and failed at, dying in the desert.

Given just enough water to survive a few weeks, Tutu travels through the Forever Desert with little knowledge of the world. He is work­ing against the impossible – not only has no one returned from their search for water, but the City of Lies is rumored to have no heroes, and no friends beyond its borders. All that lies in the Forever Desert are the brutal Ajungo and dan­gerous beasts. But as Utomi prompts us: Would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?

The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi is an epic Saharan fable about a young hero’s quest to save his mother and free his city from a deadly oppressor. What begins as an earnest and heroic attempt unfolds into a much more complex battle for liberating knowledge. Part of the tension in the story comes from the fear of a young child traveling alone without any real-world experience. Early in The Lies of the Ajungo, as Tutu passes a graveyard of children’s bones, he is reminded of how many have failed before him. The tales of his city’s origins wade through his mind as the desert’s harsh elements threaten to consume him. The Forever Desert exists beyond the trope of a lawless, empty place, but is a specific geographic place holding its own secrets and knowledge. Tutu’s rise from a young child to a hardened and disillusioned hero is not through magic or stroke of luck, but through hard work, dedication, and a relentless desire to do good for the people he loves.

Utomi does a wonderful job of planting seeds of doubt in our mind early on – the Ajungo are lying about something, it’s just unclear what ex­actly until the very end of the novella. I quickly fell in love with the side characters, especially the cousins, that Tutu encounters – their colorful personalities and bad ass combat skills make them wonderful mentors and nail-biting com­batants. Their love for one another and similar quest for a better life make them unexpectedly compatible travel companions.

The fight scenes here are of epic proportions, revealing more of the magic and cultures within the world. The postapocalyptic world of The Lies of the Ajungo resembles the world of Mad Max, but has a uniquely Saharan-inspired feel to it.

Utomi is a confident storyteller – the novella format works extraordinarily well for his deci­sive and mythical fable. Tight pacing leaves no room for excess filler, and each word weaves an increasingly complex and culturally rich world. Even on the first page, he chronicles an outstanding account of collective punishment and lost histories. Before the page has even turned, Utomi has described how droughts and the failures of one ancestor has stolen the futures away for generations to come. Chapters blend to­gether seamlessly, and the heart wrenching end brings the short, intense tale to a breathless end.

The Lies of the Ajungo is ultimately about a world shaped by deadly, powerful myths, and the heroes who rise to meet these challenges. Utomi writes a legendary tale that is certain to inspire many more.

Maya C. James is a graduate of the Lannan Fellows Program at Georgetown University, and full-time student at Harvard Divinity School. Her work has appeared in Star*Line, Strange Horizons, FIYAH, Soar: For Harriet, and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center Blog, among others. She was recently long listed for the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages Prize (2019), and featured on a feminist speculative poetry panel at the 2019 CD Wright Women Writer’s Conference. Her work focuses primarily on Afrofuturism, and imagining sustainable futures for at-risk communities. You can find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter: @mayawritesgood.

This review and more like it in the December 2022 issue of Locus.

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