Lion’s Blood (Insh’Allah Book 1) by Steven Barnes

Lion's Blood

Publisher: Spectrum Literary Agency Inc.

Publishing date: December 8th 2011 (e-book, first hardcover edition February 13th 2002).

Every now and then, either on LiveJournal or one of the various blogs and sites about books I read, I find threads recommending books by writers of color or alternate history titles: Lion’s Blood (Insh’Allah) is both (and, just FYI, I consider alternate history to be a subset of fantasy, if you don’t, feel free to skip this one).

i discovered Steven Barnes’ works years ago, via his cooperation with Larry Niven, the Dream Park series (I don’t know a single role-player who could resist the idea of a whole park devoted to live-action role-playing with the help of cutting-edge technology), so, having read very good thing about Lion’s Blood, I went for it and wasn’t disappointed.

Alternate history is the realm of well-reasoned ‘what-ifs’ and I’d offer Lion’s Blood as an example of how it is done right (in this reviewer’s opinion, of course).

Barnes’ world has multiple points of divergence from history as we know it: Socrates didn’t die in Athens, but escaped to Egypt , Alexander didn’t go to India but went also to Egypt and proclaimed himself Pharaoh, Chartage defeated and destroyed Rome, in consequence no Roman empire was born, Christianity remained a minoritarian religion, and Islam became the main world power in the West (without Rome we don’t have either the Sacred Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire).
Later on, Abyssinian and Egyptian explorers colonize the New World, there is also a Norse colony (Vinland) and a Chinese one in the analog of California. The ‘revised’ world works like clockwork, perfectly logical I didn’t have any ‘wait, what?’ moments of dissonance at the world building while I can count many chuckles at cameos of familiar figures (like Leonardo ‘The mad Frank architect’ who found patronage in Abyssinia and killed himself trying out a  flying contraption from the top of Khufu’s pyramid).

The writing is very good, I found myself drawn in from the first page and remained fully engaged till the end (in fact I read the second half of the book in one sitting), I loved the pace too. Many contemporary novels seem to run full tilt from the beginning to the end, sometimes leaving me out of breath at the last page, with a vague recollection of the details but for the main plot. Lion’s Blood has its share of action, but has also quieter, meditative spots where characters consider things, grapple with moral dilemmas, see their perspectives shift, always staying well clear from gratuitus ‘navel gazing’.

Many readers of Lion’s Blood specifically stress one main point: this is a world where slavery is common and accepted, and the masters are black and the slaves white. Well, yes and no: in the colonies in the New World the masters are by and at large Islamic, not necessarily black (the Zulus don’t follow Islam and they are a power to be reckoned with but they are somewhat of an exception, and many of the main characters see them as incomprehensible), the slaves, though, are Western Europeans, those mentioned most often are from Ireland and Gaul (Sophia, though, is Greek and Aidan mention the existence of slaves in Ireland, so it’s not an ‘us against them’ thing).
Some reviewers mention this turning of the tables as a moment of realization, a ‘there but for the grace of God…’ that made them think about the slavery issue in a different light. Honestly it didn’t happen to me, I didn’t relate to Aidan’s tribulations differently than I did to Kunta Kinte’s reading Roots  . This difference in reaction gave me pause, I thought about it for a while trying to understand the reason for it, then it dawned on me.

First of all, in European history slavery wasn’t color-coded, it has never been. In olden times one could find oneself a slave for a lot of reasons, including debt, and we haven’t the ‘white/master, black/slave’ automated pairing (if anything we have the ‘black/ foreigner’ coding instead), moreover, for someone living on the Northern shores of the Mediterranean sea, till not so long ago, the possibility of finding oneself bid upon in the slave market of Tangiers, Tripoli, Algiers or Tunis wasn’t alternate history or a flight of fancy, it was a very real possibility implicit in every sea travel. In the history of almost every seaside village and town in Central and Southern Italy there are records of Turkish/Berber/Arab raids, with people taken away never to be seen again; people who left for a sea voyage and disappeared, their ship attacked by Barbary pirates; people bought back from the auction blocs by one of the religious orders who devoted themselves to the freeing of slaves like the Order of our Lady of Mercy  (the last time was in 1798, in Tunis the Mercedarians freed 830 slaves who had been taken prisoner in the raiding of Carloforte, in Sardinia). One of the lake towns a few kilometers  from where I live, Limone sul Garda (known internationally for the so-called longevity protein) was founded by people coming inland to escape Saracen raids.

I found this an interesting facet of cultural and world-view differences between the US and Southern Europe, one of the many things that often aren’t taken into account when we discuss things across the Atlantic in ‘the Age of Globalization’.

Back to the point: if you are looking for well written, engaging alternate history that will linger after you have finished the book and make you think Lion’s Blood is highly recommended.


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