Doubleday Books, 1980, 320 pages
Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflexor design. He fears no one...until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.
If you've ever wondered what the X-Men written by Octavia Butler would look like, this is that book.
There are no epic super-powered battles, and the word "mutant" is never used (nor any other four-colored neologisms for superbeings). But Wild Seed is basically about two people born with superhuman powers (including immortality) being born centuries ago, discovering each other, and then trying to guide other "gifted" beings (most of them being their descendants) along very different paths, down through the generations. Which sounds an awful lot like the plot of a lot of X-Men stories, doesn't it?
Butler's "Mr. Sinister" is Doro, born thousands of years ago among the ancient Nubians. He has the power of body transference; whenever his host body dies (or when he wills it), he can move his consciousness to a new body, killing the former owner in the process. This makes him immortal and practically unkillable — his current body can be killed, but he'll just take over the killer's body. He started his own breeding program centuries ago, and now he has "colonies" of minions and descendants all over the world.
Anyanwu is a shapeshifter. She can transform her own body, including healing it of wounds and diseases, and she can turn into anything she's seen (or tasted). This makes her immortal as well, but she's been living a more or less sedate existence in her African village amongst her descendants.
When Doro discovers her, he decides they'd make lovely children together. Unfortunately, Doro is a narcissistic psychopath who views everyone, including his own children, as tools to be used or discarded when dangerous or no longer useful. So while Anyanwu is initially thrilled, fearful, and then resigned about being taken by Doro, their relationship will turn into a centuries-long battle of wills in which Doro seeks to dominate her and Anyanwu continually finds ways to survive and resist him even when submitting.
Octavia Butler's prose is smooth and straightforward, packing a ton of plot, characterization, and emotion into every sentence without a lot of flowery language. Wild Seed skillfully weaves racism into the narrative (Doro and Anyanwu both being immortal superbeings who also happen to be African, winding up in 19th century America) without making it a soapbox about racism, as so many modern novels do with their much more clumsy allegories. (Arguably, one could also say this about the X-Men.)
That said, the book wasn't quite perfect. I found Anyanwu a little frustrating. She is a healer and that is her role throughout the book, including her desire to "heal" Doro. There seems to be a bit of the old "I can make the sexy Bad Boy good with the power of my love" trope here. Butler does it with far more nuance and plausibility than in a YA novel, and I actually like the fact that someone who's proven himself to be as despicable and borderline-sociopathic as Doro, for millenia, actually has somewhat-reasonable justifications for his actions (albeit it's the vampire justification — "It's what I am and if I don't do it I die") and a hope of redemption. But I still found Anyanwu going back to him annoying, maybe because I am used to X-Men comics where the underdog would figure out a way to beat the more powerful villain with her powers instead of submitting and reforming him. Though in fairness, that's been the plot of a few Magneto storylines, hasn't it?
Anyway, this was a good book, and it's the first in a series, so I am curious to see where Doro and Anyanwu go from here.
Also by Octavia Butler: My reviews of Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, Fledgling, and Dawn.
My complete list of book reviews.