An Interview with Moses Ose Utomi

Please give a warm Grimdark Magazine welcome to Moses Ose Utomi, who’s here today to chat to us about his novella The Truth of the Aleke – which is out now from Tordotcom (reviewed here). The sequel to 2023’s phenomenal The Lies of the Ajungo (reviewed here), this second novella peels back another layer of the Forever Desert trilogy, and if you read and loved the first book you’ll want to jump straight into this one. First though, read on to find out more about what to expect from this fascinating new story and its protagonist, its place in the Forever Desert, the merits of novellas, and lots more.

The Truth of the Aleke[GdM] To start things off, could you tell us a bit about The Truth of the Aleke and what readers can expect from it?

[MOU] The Truth of the Aleke is kind of an unconventional sequel. Instead of giving you more adventure with the same characters, it takes place 500 years after the events of The Lies of the Ajungo. Tutu, the cousins, Oba Ijefi, the Ajungo—all things of the past. Instead, we follow a boy named Osi who must undertake a journey across the Forever Desert to defeat the Aleke—a mysterious, brutal warlord—and free his city from oppression.

If you enjoyed the camaraderie, magic, and slow unfurling of the first book, be prepared for more of that. But also be prepared to for some surprising differences, including learning much more about how the magic system works.

[GdM] If we can take a step back from The Truth of the Aleke for a moment, I’d like to ask you about the Forever Desert trilogy as a whole. Could you talk about the spark behind this trilogy – what prompted you to write these books, telling this particular story?

[MOU] The Lies of the Ajungo came to me in this strange fever dream, almost fully formed from the beginning. I wrote it shortly after returning to the US after living in China for a year and a half, and I think it was my way of reckoning with the fact that the world I saw abroad was nothing like the world I’d been lead to believe existed. Then when I started thinking about where the story could go from there, all these different experiences from my formative years began filtering in—the Bush, Obama, and Trump presidencies, 9/11, social media’s growth, George Floyd, the Covid pandemic, my time traveling, stories from relatives who had visited from Nigeria, and a million other things. It was a lot, and I realized I wanted to make the reader feel what the experience felt like for me—and, hopefully, many other people of my generation—in trying to be a sane person in an insane world.

[GdM] Despite the short length of these books, the setting of the Forever Desert – from its cities and peoples to the magic that runs through it – feels incredibly rich and real. What sort of influences (whether literary or otherwise) did you draw upon while creating this world?

[MOU] The clearest influences are West and North Africa. The names, foods, architecture and more are most heavily drawn from different cultures and historical eras in those regions. Dune, Binti, and other desert fictions may be noticeable as well. Less obvious is the influence of my growing up in Las Vegas—a desert city, if perhaps an unconventional one. There’s also a heavy influence from the anime Attack on Titan, of which I am a deranged superfan, and a not insignificant dollop of Final Fantasy 7, of which I am also a deranged superfan. The tone of the writing is drawn mostly from the scripture and stories of my childhood—the Bible, my dad’s storytelling, etc.

[GdM] The Forever Desert is a trilogy of novellas, as opposed to the full-length novel format you went for with your YA novel Daughters of Oduma – could you talk a bit about how you settle on which format to use for a story, and how (or indeed whether) the choice of format affects how you write it?

[MOU] I’d intended to write Daughters of Oduma as a novella, but the story just didn’t feel finished, even though the novella version ended in pretty much the same place as the novel version. I ended up having to go in and fill in some blanks until it was novel length. That’s pretty common for me—projects tend to have their own desires that trump mine. I will say, though, that the books of the Forever Desert are the only projects I’ve ever written that are almost exactly the length I intended from the start. To me, a novella is the perfect middle ground between poetry and epics—it can deliver the devastating punch of a poem while having some of the space for meandering and adventure of an epic. That was exactly what I wanted each book of the Forever Desert to achieve, so it felt like the perfect length.

[GdM] Without spoiling The Lies of the Ajungo for anyone who hasn’t read it, it definitely makes sense that The Truth of the Aleke should be about different characters, but I was interested in just how long after the first book this takes place. What did that 500-year gap allow you to do with this story?

[MOU] I knew I wanted this series to look not just at societal changes, but systemic and even climatological changes. 500 years felt long enough that the people and events of the previous book will be in the distant past, but not so long—we often see events occurring millennia ago in fantasy, and I didn’t want that—that the time becomes an almost meaningless quantity. 500 years, for a pre-industrial society, is enough time for substantial societal change, but not so much that geological, technological, or even evolutionary change is a factor. It’s the same world, it’s just a bit different, and the events of the previous book are still relevant to the characters.

[GdM] Compared to Tutu [the main character of The Lies of the Ajungo], Osi has many more advantages: he isn’t plagued by thirst, his family is relatively speaking more fortunate than Tutu’s, he’s grown older before having to face his trials. Was that a conscious decision, to set the two protagonists apart?

[MOU] It was, yeah. Both are products of their environment. In the City of Lies, people spend their lives seeking water and typically die young, so Tutu lives minimally, both in resources and, to a degree, in self expression. Osi grew up in a state of desire, but not quite desperation. The Aleke’s siege is real and brutal, but it is not the sort of thing that impedes every day life. So Osi has aspirations in career and family and other things that would never really occur to Tutu. Osi doesn’t minimize himself—he takes up space unapologetically. Both a great representatives of their respective worlds, and neither could exist in the other’s. Without spoiling book 3, I think getting to see both of these types of people is essential to the overall story of the Forever Desert.

[GdM] To use a slightly hackneyed comparison, The Truth of the Aleke feels like a darker story than the first book – if The Lies of the Ajungo was A New Hope, this is The Empire Strikes Back, playing out the consequences of the first story. Was that always the intention, to make this the darker ‘middle’ part of the trilogy?

[MOU] It was indeed. Though I wasn’t necessarily setting out to make it “darker” as much as “closer,” if that makes sense. Tutu’s world is plenty dark. I could even argue that the ritualized mass tongue severance in Ajungo is darker than anything that happens in Aleke. But Ajungo is a bit further away from the darkness—you hear about the tongue cutting, but you don’t actually see it. Or, even moreso, feel it. Part of this goes back to what I was saying about the characters being products of their environments. Tutu, for all his lack, has his mama to protect him. Osi is much more exposed than Tutu is, and he doesn’t really have anyone as invested in protecting him. Since the reader experiences it through Osi’s eyes, that means less protection
for you too (sorrynotsorry!).

[GdM] Even more so than in The Lies of the Ajungo, it feels like Osi’s story really lives in the grey areas, with very little being black and white and the realities of the story developing over time. How did you find writing that, balancing how much to reveal and when?

[MOU] I found it extremely difficult, lol. I probably wrote more pages that got cut from Aleke than I wrote pages that ended up in the book. I tried scene after scene to see if I could find the right balance of revelation, and it was exceedingly difficult. In the end, I
had to trust my editors and the story itself and kind of let it unfold how it wanted.

[GdM] I really enjoyed the callbacks to the first book, and the way certain elements stand out differently in light of the sequel – like how Tutu almost never cries while Osi cries openly and often, or the way certain characters and events take on different meanings. Did you have a lot of that planned out in advance, or was it more a case of looking for opportunities during the writing of book two?

[MOU] I’m glad you noticed! A lot of that was in service of the story and to reward careful readers like yourself, but some of it was just fun for me, as a writer. There’s something very pleasurable, and sometimes even haunting, when such things line up between books. I’d planned in advance to do plenty of that, and I had a couple things in mind from the beginning (such as the crying), but a lot of it came out organically in the writing.

[GdM] Looking back now that two of the three volumes of the trilogy are published, are there any particular lessons you feel like you’ve learned from a writing craft perspective?

[MOU] Definitely. Maybe the biggest is knowing when to write in what I call poetic voice vs mythological voice. Poetic voice, as I define it, is for the deep and meaningful. The little insights into a world or character that belong uniquely to that book. Tutu’s first encounter with water is, to me, a poetic moment—it wouldn’t make sense to put in pretty much any other work. Mythological moments are simple and relatable and feel similar to things you’d see anywhere. Descriptions of the sun and sand and things like that. I’d classify the opening/prologue of each book as mythological, too. These books rely heavily on my ability to known when to use which voice, and I’m learning with each book how to better do that.

[GdM] To finish off, if you were a Seer is there a particular use that you’d want to put that power to?

[MOU] Sand manipulation. In a place like the Forever Desert, being able to control sand could be pretty powerful. Perhaps we’ll see more of that in book 3… 🙂

Read The Truth of the Aleke by Moses Ose Utomi

Buy this book on Amazon

Share this
Tags:
Michael Dodd

Michael Dodd

Michael spends his days writing software user documentation, and in his free time runs Track of Words where he keeps himself busy writing reviews and author interviews. If he could spend every hour reading or writing about books, he absolutely would. You can find him at www.trackofwords.com or on Twitter @track_of_words - come along and say hi!

Get grit in your inbox

Stay on top of all the latest book releases and discussions—join our mailing list.