The Sword and the Spear (Sands of the Emperor, 2)

Written by Mia Couto
Review by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

This tale of star-crossed lovers begins in Mozambique in 1895, in a boat on the Inharrime River with 15-year-old Imani Nsambe, her father, and her brother of the VaChopi people; and two whites—an Italian madam and 24-year-old Germano de Melo, a Portuguese soldier who has lost fingers on both hands in a battle. They are taking Germano, Imani’s lover, to the outpost of a Swiss medical missionary but are stranded at a broken-down church with an Indian priest from Goa who wishes to be what he is not, and a traditional healer from the VaNdau people.

The VaNdau, like the VaChopi, have entered into an uneasy alliance with the Portuguese colonizers against the VaNguni and their leader Ngungunyane (Gungunhane) who have terrorized other peoples of the Gaza region and made inroads against the whites as well. Germano writes letters to his mentor that reveal the conflicts within Portugal that have led him to this remote and dangerous outpost, while Imani struggles to stay with him, fending off the Italian hoping to recruit her into prostitution in the capital city of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), and her father, who hopes to marry her off to Ngungunyane, so she can assassinate him.

Though the second in a series, this is a gripping stand-alone with two complex, sympathetic characters who would sacrifice everything for each other. Their love across race contrasts with the racism of the whites around them and the willingness of all sides in this prolonged war to dehumanize, exploit, and kill. The multiple racist terms for Mozambique’s Black population may put off readers, and Couto, a white Mozambican, has more convincingly portrayed Germano and his mentor than the young Black woman who also narrates the story.