Laye, who died in 1980, was considered one of West Africa's most important imaginative writers; this, an epic that describes the founding of the Empire of Malt and stretches over a span of 600 years, was his last work. And it is a pure epic: genealogies abound, sexual intrigue, great battles, large treacheries. Its main focus is on the hump-backed matriarch Sogolon, who is chosen by the great king Mandan-Ka as one of his wives (the soothsaying griots--""guardians of the word""--have decreed that he find the ugliest woman he can, for destiny's sake); and Sogolon provides him with five sons and a daughter. One of these sons is Sundiata, a cripple who does not walk until he is 13--thanks to the curse of Sogolon's bitter rival, one of the king's other wives (who cannot stand the idea of Sundiata inheriting his dying father's crown). Yet Sundiata not only miraculously starts to walk; he also becomes a great warrior and reconquers the entire Mandan territory back from the evil usurping ruler Sumaoro. Laye employs proverbs, chants, lists--and, perhaps most interesting of all, the shifting metamorphoses and defensive spells which magic gives to the various heroes and villains: these slippery identities and foils give the book a dimension aside from that of folk tale, with symbolic treatment of psychology. Not always simple to follow, requiring considerable investment of concentration--as genuine epics often do--but quite engrossing once the road is firmly taken.