The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi
The Lies of the Ajungo (2023), by Moses Ose Utomi, is as close to perfect a modern parable as I’ve read in some time, with prose as sparse as its desert setting and lessons just as unforgiving. I loved pretty much everything about it from its opening line — “There is no water in the City of Lies” — onward.
The novella opens with a brief bit of worldbuilding history: Long ago when the City of Lies suffered greatly from its lack of water, when “Mamas drank the blood of their children to fend off thirst, only to die anyway,” the powerful Ajungo Empire, with “water like sky … [and] trees fat with fruit,” made a horrific bargain — “In exchange for water, the Ajungo demanded the tongues of every citizen.” The literal nature of the torture is appalling enough in its cruelty, but as the narration notes, this was “a twofold price, a price of blood and a price of history: an untongued people cannot tell their story.” Ever since that unfathomable bargain was struck, upon reaching the age of thirteen all citizens have their tongues sliced off, tossed into a wagon, and sent off to the Empire, which in return sent only enough water to keep the City of Lies alive, “only a trickle.” Also, since then, children have set out from the city (renamed by the Ajungo from its long-forgotten true name so no one would believe citizens from the city) in search of water and in hundreds of years, no water has been found, nor no help, and no children ever returned. As the narration says, there are no heroes within the City of Lies and no friends beyond.
We jump then to present time and young Tutu, who will turn thirteen in just a few days. But when his mother falls prey to life-threatening dehydration, Tutu declares he will leave the city to seek water. The Oba of the city, Oba Ijefi, gives him a camel, three weeks’ worth of water in canteens, protective clothes and arm, food, and a promise of one year of water for his mother until he either returns successful or not at all. As months go by and he travels a desert of sand and bones, Tutu becomes harder (physically, mentally, emotionally), loses his innocence, learns fighting skills, meets both enemies and allies though it’s not always clear to him, which is which, and uncovers secrets even more terrible than the truths he knows.
The writing, as noted and as is appropriate for the parable form is spare and precise, matching its setting perfectly. The pace too is perfectly set, with Utomi jumping ahead as needed in just a line or even a phrase, like “after a few months,” and still making the coming-of-age aspect clear and effective. Those who like detailed world-building may find it skeletal here, but it fits the fable/parable form and is certainly adequate to both theme and intent.
The coiled tight pacing of the novella makes those themes, and the associated emotionality surrounding them, all the more effective powerfully effective. The gut punches begin with that early history summarized above — the horrific bargain, the imagery of tongues being carted off to the empire, the larger loss of history that comes with the loss of voice, the hundreds of years of desperation, the many lost generations — and the punches keep coming one after the other with each new person/group Tutu meets. The bonds that form out of those encounters are surprisingly impactful considering the brevity with which they are conveyed, a testament to the efficiency of Utomi’s prose. Meanwhile, the cold, calculating nature of what he fights against only grows more terrible as truths are slowly revealed. How much of a revelation the ultimate truth turns out to be will in part depend on how attentively one reads, as Utomi does a mostly masterful job of layering down the breadcrumbs. If I had one small quibble, it would be that perhaps he doesn’t quite trust his own early brick-laying skill enough, but that’s all I’ll say about what is, as noted, quite a small quibble.
Highly effective in its language, style, voice, pace, and plot; powerful in its exploration of themes of power and cruelty and self-blindness; darkly imaginative, and heart-breaking at times, Lies of the Ajungo is my favorite read of so far (late February) this year. Even better, it’s listed as being Book 1, which means we’ll be getting even more. Highly recommended.
Bill, what do the think about the emergence (or reemergence) of the novella as a “form” in the speculative fiction field? I’m startled by how many publishers are choosing this length. Do you think people reading on their phones helps drive this particular market?
I think it’s a combination of people’s attention span declining and not wanting to commit to a novel, and it being easier to read a novella on a phone whereas a novel gets wearying. I’m sure there’s some better monetary ability by publishers as well with digital–I’d be curious how many print versions of these are published vs digital and how it compares to the ration for novels
and yep, you should read this!
Second comment–I just finished your review and now I have to go buy this book!