Zulu Heart, by Steven Barnes

zulu-heart-by-steven-barnes coverGenre: Alternate History
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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I was actually a little bit worried when I got my hands on Zulu Heart, the sequel to Steven Barnes’ fabulous Lion’s Blood. My review of that book tells you all you need to know about my impressions. In short, I loved it. So, I had in my hands a book I never expected even though I had hoped for it. After I had finished Lion’s Blood, I had that desire to know more that all good books leave one with. Here was more.

I can happily say that Mr. Barnes didn’t let me down. He has crafted a book both like and unlike Lion’s Blood. It is as well written, as compelling and as exciting as its predecessor. However, it covers a much shorter period of time and its characters adults throughout, with the critical faculties that adults should have. I appreciated both the similarities and the differences. I can’t imagine how else Mr. Barnes could have approached this.

When the book opens, Kai is the master of Dar Kush while Aidan leads a group of freedmen who have settled in the O’Dere Crannog. Just as in our history, civil war here looms, as imperial powers vie for ascendancy. This alternate South is as dependent on slave labor as the South of our world was, and Kai’s loyalty lies with the South, even though he has moral difficulties with slavery–though he never really acts on them, using many of the same excuses and rationalizations we know from our own history. He drags Aidan into his scheme, using the lure of Aidan’s sister, promising her freedom and protection for Aidan’s crannog. Aidan truly has no choice.

And so the adventure begins. However, there is much groundwork laid. This book, unlike the previous, starts slowly. In Lion’s Blood we were thrown into the terror and oppression of slavery right off the bat, following young Aidan from freedom in Ireland to servitude in Bilalstan. In Zulu Heart, we are reintroduced to characters but also introduced to the politics and difficulties that are the foundation of the story and the motivations for the characters.

When I say the book starts slowly, I don’t mean that in a disparaging manner. It was like slowly entering into a hot bath–start warm and slowly increase. And I became immersed in this world thanks to Mr. Barnes patient explanations, graphic semantic illustrations and character interaction. This world became as alive as in the first book, but on whole other levels. Lion’s Blood had a broad canvas of time while Zulu Heart has a broad canvas of geography and politics.

Some people might hate politics in their action-adventure tales. Personally, considering Kai’s position, delving into the politics of Bilalstan only makes sense. And rather than focusing on the fate of characters, this novel weaves the fate of the characters into the fate of nations. The stakes at a personal level are high, for both Kai and Aidan, but there is also the fate of every citizen of New Djibouti.

This book is a triumph of characterization and setting realization as much as it is an exciting and enthralling read. This was a book that I literally couldn’t put down. As I neared the end, I started at ten o’clock one night and had to read through until four in the morning. I had to finish it. It was one of those “just one more chapter” moments. I didn’t regret it, even the next day as I propped open my eyelids with toothpicks.

If you enjoyed Lion’s Blood, you’ve got to check out Zulu Heart. If you haven’t read either, and you enjoy action-adventure or alternate history, you really should do yourself a favour and get these books. If you just like good fiction with strong characters, a fully realized setting and a gripping plot, these books are must-reads.

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