Lion’s Blood, by Steven Barnes

lions-blood-by-steven-barnesGenre: Alternate History
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Fraser Ronald

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The world of Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes is a slightly tweaked version of our own. In this alternate history, Egypt and Abyssinia are the great powers of the world, and Europe is a hunting ground for slavers, such as the firearm bearing Norsemen who capture one of the book’s protagonists, Aidan O’Dere. The beginning of the book follows Aidan and his family to North America and slavery, and then splits its narrative among the family of Abu Ali, the Wakil of Dar Kush, and Aidan who is owned by the Wakil. Kai, the Wakil’s youngest son, befriends Aidan, though this is not a friendship of equals. The two grow into adults, friends but ever so separate.

This book is astounding both in its description of the slave and master mentality and the well-rounded characters that inhabit its pages. I am, as a reader, character-oriented. No matter how great the plot, no matter how interesting the setting might be, if the characters fall flat, I stop reading. Lion’s Blood delighted me. These are flawed humans, even when they are of heroic stature. The reader can empathize and understand even the attitude of the slave owners. We watch the characters grow and develop, and there is recognition of the realities which they mirror.

The book begins and ends with Aidan O’Dere, though the story is not his alone. The terrors he encounters as a child captured by slavers, and the misery and confusion he faces as a slave who is also the “friend” of one of his masters, is exquisitely rendered. He is not an average man, in that the captivity as described would break an average man, but he is not a lofty hero. He makes some decisions and at times acts in ways that may repel the reader, but always one can understand the hows and whys. He makes mistakes–some of them costly beyond comprehension–and he does not fulfill all the purposes of his life, but that is the way of the world.

It is easy for the reader to root for the underdog, to cheer on the hero trapped in a situation not of his own making, but it is harder to have sympathy for a character whose belief system is founded on a concept the reader finds abhorrent. However, one does come to understand and sympathize with Kai, the Wakil’s younger son. A religious individual, he still accepts the concept of slavery. It helps that Mr. Barnes explores the socialization that goes into creating such blind acceptance. It also helps that as Kai begins to explore the Sufi sect of the Moslem religion, he also begins to question his attitudes.

Characters are the driving force of this novel, and even tertiary characters offer up glimpses of real humans in real situations. Everyone in this book breathed, they all shone with life and animation. I could feel their sorrow, their pride, and my heart lurched when they were threatened. Their discoveries became my own, even when I had made those discoveries long ago. Finishing the novel, I knew those characters, and I grieved and celebrated with them.

Slavery is still a hot-button topic. It has not, in truth, been eradicated from this world. There are still places where one might find a young slave torn from his home and sold to the highest bidder. Why then the alternate history setting for this novel? I cannot delve into Mr. Barnes’ mind to answer that, but I believe the choice was effective. Was it effective for me because Aidan is Irish, very similar to the Scottish of my ancestry? Did I identify more with him because of that? No, I do not believe so. I also identified strongly with Kai, his brother Ali, and their father, Abu Ali. If this novel had been written in modern times, would it have been as compelling? Considering Mr. Barnes’ writing, I would guess so. So why the alternate history?

Quite frankly, the story, as it stands, could be told in no other format. In a completely fabricated setting, it would lose the contrast with our own history. In the real world, Mr. Barnes would be constrained by real world events. And, honestly, the savage irony of African slave owners with their European slaves strikes a chord deep inside. Had these characters been reversed, and placed in the real South, perhaps during the Civil War, I think the novel would retain its punch, but there would be differences.

Lion’s Blood also offers hypotheses about the evolution of African culture, I believe predicated on the turns European culture in the United States took, sometimes spurred on by rationalization of slavery. Mr. Barnes’ exploration of African culture, and the use of the historical Shaka Zulu to contrast those warriors, such as Abu Ali and his sons, who fight with regret and guilt, adds a whole other dimension to the novel. In the end, I think the strength of the novel would remain in any setting, but it would not be this novel, and that would be a shame.

And this novel struck me as few novels have. After a two hour train ride with Aidan and Kai as my companions, I could not shake the sense of sorrow, loss and anxiety the novel had created in me. As I lay in bed that night, I found myself pondering those thoughts haunting Kai, and fearing for Aidan and the comfort he had found–a slave’s comfort existing only as long as the master allows it. I found myself, both in the two hours I read and the hours that followed, enveloped in the world that Mr. Barnes had created, and I revelled in that. I do not believe I can offer any higher praise.

Even for those who would not ordinarily read alternate histories or science-fiction–as it is catalogued–I would highly recommend this novel. Though this did not happen in the real world, is offers emotions and high entertainment, excitement and shocks, that are not so easily found. Though this history is not our own, one could easily learn as many important lessons from this novel as from any history text. Time spent reading this novel, will be enjoyable, but also enlightening, and certainly well-invested.

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