Shigidi, a fantasy novel by Wole Talabi, is a fine display of the author’s dexterity as a writer and his keen eye for story. It is also a fine demonstration of how grossly underutilized African mythology has been in world fantasy.
Nigerian fantasy has come a long way since Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard. Published in 1952, and widely regarded as the first Nigerian fantasy novel, Tutuola’s story wove Yoruba folklore, fantastical quests and political commentary into a compact and punchy tale. Nigerian fantasy has evolved since then to include Ben Okri’s genre-defying novels, Nnedi Okorafor’s witchy storytelling and new entrants like Suyi Davies who writes mediaeval high fantasy and Dare Falowo whose work stretches the limits of the Nigerian weird. Though well subscribed, the genre is still in its infancy and still largely considered ‘fringe’ literature. Wole Talabi’s debut novel, Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon is uniquely positioned as the novel that opens the genre to mainstream reckoning.
It has taken ten years and many false starts for Talabi to weave a fascinating world filled with gods, monsters and cosmic entities who are all driven by complex motives to intervene and interfere in the mortal world. Shigidi was first published as a collaborative short story published on the now-defunct Alchemist’s Corner column on the Naked Convos in 2013, and Talabi revisited the story over the years, expanding the core idea until it evolved into its current iteration.
Duty puts Shigidi, the book’s titular character, in the path of Nneoma, a secretive succubus whose own history spans the entirety of human existence. He is a lower-level deity, a nightmare god trapped in a dead-end job where he fulfils a specific variety of prayer requests on behalf of the wasteful and nepotistic elder Gods in his canon-corporation, the Orisha Spirit Corp. Prayer is an article of faith, used to express belief and faith is currency in the spirit verse. As a god forgotten by the modern and confined to the rules of the spirit corp, Shigidi can no longer directly inspire worship, and as such, he must subsist on crumbs from the table of his masters who have remained relevant and worshipped in Yoruba land. Shigidi and Nneoma are at first in opposition to each other, but Nneoma realizes that Shigidi’s heart is not in his duty. His true desires, though suppressed, mirror hers. She sees her opportunity and takes it.
‘You are not happy, are you?… With your life, I mean?’
She helps him articulate those secret desires, desires that could get him punished or worse, sundered. With her help, Shigidi breaks ties with the Orisha corp and ascends to a higher level of divinity, he becomes a free agent, a divine being with no pantheon, beholden only to himself.
For Shigidi to survive this new reality, he must find worship in other ways. Shigidi and Nneoma forge a practical alliance where she teaches him how to survive as an independent deity and in return, he offers her protection and companionship. It is a simple enough arrangement, until it is complicated by their growing affection for each other. That affection is a blindspot that is exploited when Shango, current CEO of the Orisha Corp, sends his trusted wives and an old friend of Shigidi to exterminate the duo. Sango is slighted by Shigidi’s mutiny and eager to send a message to other lower deities within the pantheon about the supremacy of the hierarchical order in the Orisha Corp. A surprise intervention from an unexpected player foils Shango’s assassination attempt and puts the duo in the debt of a very old and very powerful creator when Nneoma’s call to an old familiar is corrupted by Shigidi’s longing for his spirit home.
‘I was trying to find us an escape, open a channel to the domain of an older power as a last resort… but you called out Olorun, you reached for him in the darkness and corrupted my call.’
The rest of the book delves into the relationship between Shigidi, Nneoma and Olorun—their new benefactor—and the dangerous heist they must complete for him. Nneoma and Shigidi encounter a litany of characters, including Aleister Crowley, Gog and Magog from British antiquity and Lucifer, who makes a cameo by way of reference, each playing a part in advancing the plot towards the book’s deeply satisfying final twist.
The world Talabi weaves pays homage to a long line of noir-influenced fantasy novels that explore the idea of cross pantheon politics. Its magic system bears some similarities with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which posits that supernatural beings are sustained and anchored by worship and as such must wield it as currency and control it as a source of power. But in terms of style and actual plot mechanics, Shigidi is closer to Simon R. Green’s the Nightside series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, where the deities operating within the fantastical world Talabi weaves are agnostic and are driven more by their very human desires than they are by the rigid dogma that they are known for in the real world. A running theme across the novel is that desire is posited as divine and not human, and it is the fact that humans share this trait of desire with the deities they worship that makes them capable of challenging and even besting these gods.
CRAFT, CULTURE AND CONSEQUENCES
Many things make Shigidi stand out. First, there is the breadth of Talabi’s experience as a world traveller and how it informs the writing in Shigidi. The book’s leads traverse three continents and several cities with ease and Talabi shows just enough restraint with world building to set the stage for each significant twist in the book without detracting from the tense plot. The second is the deftness with which Talabi moves between genres. The plot combines elements of the heist novel, high fantasy, gripping thrillers, and high drama, each introduced with a delicateness that the reader is never thrown off or confused. Third is the extensive lore building in Shigidi and how it is able to pay homage to familiar genre tropes while forging its own. The lore of Shigidi is compelling enough to hold our attention and I hope it inspires further exploration by other authors.
Perhaps, it is because I was raised on a diet of Anne Rice’s ontological musings on immortality, divinity and humanity, but I was not sold on the romance between the leads. Shigidi and Nneoma have an unconventional meet cute, literally while duelling for the soul of a hapless woman. Shigidi’s decision to abdicate from his responsibilities for love angers a whole pantheon and draws the attention of a ‘supreme’ being. It is the kind of setup that should spiral out into a romantic dilemma of eternal proportions.
Two immortal beings, driven by loneliness to each other and forced to navigate the consequences of star-crossed love where the main hindrance to true happiness is not the superpowered gods that seek to destroy them, but their own cynicism, hardened by centuries of immortality and polished by past betrayals. Shigidi falls in love too quickly and too deeply with Nneoma, and her inner conflict is too simplistic, too human. When they finally admit their love to each other, after a close brush with death, I found myself more relieved that the subplot was done with, than delighted at the resolution, a problem you never want to have with romance.
The weak romance, while a contentious subplot, is a minor inconvenience in a book that otherwise manages to be rich in lore, deeply referential of the fantasy genre, instructive without being preachy and accessible even to casual readers. Overall, Shigidi is a fine display of Talabi’s dexterity as a writer and his keen eye for story and a fine demonstration of how grossly underutilized African mythology has been in world fantasy⎈
SHIGIDI AND THE BRASS HEAD OF OBALUFON
320 pp. Masobe Books, September 2023
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