Set in an African-inspired world full of wonder and horror, Moses Ose Utomi’s novella The Lies of the Ajungo is a powerful, beguiling blend of parable and fantasy. As part of a bargain with the powerful Ajungo Empire, the citizens of the City of Lies sacrifice their tongues when they turn thirteen in exchange for just enough water to survive. When twelve-year-old Tutu realises just how ill his mother has become, he bravely sets out in search of water, determined to return to his city a hero. His journey through the Forever Desert is filled with danger, hope and heartbreak. Over the course of his travels he grows into a man, but also learns the true darkness behind the City of Lies and the realities of the Ajungo.
Dealing with some seriously grim themes–lies, manipulation, deep injustice and a terrible power imbalance, just for starters–The Lies of the Ajungo hides a considerable darkness beneath its surface, even if it’s maybe not quite what you’d call grimdark. Starting the story off as an almost total innocent, Tutu is trying to be a hero without really knowing what that means, a naive child lost in a world full of people so weighed down by pain and suffering that all they can do is concentrate on survival, whatever that takes. This isn’t a story about heroes though, and while parts of Tutu’s arc are beautiful and genuinely heartwarming, watching him come to understand just how much he’s been lied to–and what that does to him–is utterly heartbreaking.
While this is very much a fantasy setting, complete with its own unique, intriguing forms of magic and a pretty bleak history, the fantastical elements never dominate or take away from the core of the story. The plot is largely quite straightforward, keeping the pace moving and lending proceedings a parable-like sense of focus and elegant simplicity. With the focus very much on Tutu’s emotional and intellectual journey, this determinedly character-first approach has a really powerful impact. The Lies of the Ajungo is a book which will undoubtedly reward multiple readings, with resonant themes and a brilliant protagonist, and which delivers an emotional punch far beyond what you might expect from its size. The fact that it’s only the first in a trilogy of novellas is really just the icing on the cake.