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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Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacEvoy

Tea with the Black Dragon

Publisher: Open Road Media

Publication date: September 9th 2014 (in e-book form, the novel was published in print form in 1983)

When I happen across a book that mixes one of my favorite genres with Chinese history and culture I can’t help but read it. Problem is that, given that China is my professional field, I’m also nitpicky.

There are many things I like in Tea with the Black Dragon but I would have liked it better if some little things had been different.

I loved the fact that both main characters are middle-aged (it isn’t that common to have people over 50 as the main characters in fantasy), I also like the old-fashioned feeling I got from the style (the book was first published in 1983 but, had I not known, I would have said it was older). it is not that it feels outdated, far from it, but the vocabulary is richer that the usual fare of ‘modern’ fantasy novel (although not pretentious or purple), and the prose has a more leisurely pace, it isn’t slow but alternates action sequences with more meditative, quiet moments.

I also like the zen snippets and the fact that the moment of revelation for Mr. Long felt like an echo from a famous quote by Gertrude Stein.

What I don’t like too much is Mr. Long himself, the black dragon of the title. It feels to me like the author portrayed him like a transformed Chinese dragon but was hazy about what a Chinese dragon really is and how it differs from an European one.

I cringed at Mayland Long’s disconfort on being on the water, for instance, and at the hints in the book about his links with fire since Chinese dragons are known for being water-spirits in control of the rain, rivers, lakes and even the sea itself.

There are also scattered references to gold and hoarding, but Chinese dragons aren’t hoarders sitting on piles of gold, they are custodians of treasures and give them freely to deserving humans.
Mayland Long tells of finding himself in human shape after a night-long vigil over the body of a dead hermit, fact is that in Chinese stories dragons have two shapes, they can appear either as dragons or as humans, at will, the nasty surprise for Mayland should have been finding himself trapped in human shape, not having one.

I feel I can recommend this one only to readers that won’t be bothered by the sloppy research on what should have been one of the main elements of the book, for a way better MacAvoy (at least in this reviewer’s opinion) read the Damiano series instead.

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Court of Fives
Book One of the Court of Fives series
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 18th, 2015

I don’t remember exactly when and how I started following Kate Elliott on LiveJournal, it may have been a comment she left on a friends’ entry or a climb through the branches of my friends’s list, fact is that I do follow her. When I read that she was expanding into YA I was excited, not because of any genre-specific fondness (I am rather neutral towards YA, actually) but because I find intriguing to follow an author I like in a foray into unexplored territory.

Court of Fives landed in my Kindle upon release and I finished it in two days.

I was hooked from page one: the quiet family scene may remind one of the start of Little Women (indeed, one of the sources of inspiration Elliott herself mentions for the novel), but it’s immediately clear that the setting for this book is completely different. This Italian reader was immediately reminded how, in the whole of the Mediterranean, courtyards are just another room of the house, to be used for work, play and quiet times. The scene had something of an archaic feel, much older than either the Civil War or the much abused pseudo-European, pseudo-medieval ‘age’ that is the standard of so many fantasy books.

I loved the world building, Elliott respects her readers enough that she doesn’t feel the need to guide them by hand and explain every little thing, the main points come up naturally and she trusts the reader to connect the dots.

Some readers may feel put off by the patriarchal nature of the setting, I am not among them. The problematic elements are clear, characters struggle with them and find ways to reach their objectives within the strictures imposed by their society or by bending those rules as far as they would go. Even the meekest character, the one that seem to have accepted everything and questioned nothing (Kyia, the mother) is shown in the course of the story to have done her far share of defiant acts. Moreover we are shown that the confining, restrictive ways of the Patrons aren’t the only options, now and again we see that the Commoners culture is way different and allows far more freedom to its women.

I would have liked, though, if Elliott had used different ‘nicknames’ for the two peoples sharing the land of Efea, rather than Patrons for the Saroese conquerors and Commoners for the conquered Efeans. As it is, they make it sound sort of dystopian, as if the divide was a matter of class, rather than ethnicity, and as if the two cultures were monolithic, while already in the first chapter we are shown the strenght of class divisions within the Patrons (the girls’ father is a baker’s son who normally wouldn’t be allowed much of a career in the army due to his lowly birth).

I liked most of the characters, with the notable exception of Amaya (who, I suspect, most readers will love to hate), and, of course, Lord Gargaron. The siblings’father is a complex character who makes some very unsympathetic choices. By the end of the novel I still haven’t been able to decide whether he really had no way out or whether he jumped at the opportunity while convincing himself that he had no choices, I’m looking forward to see what will happen to him in the next book(s). Kalliarkos is still likable by the end of the novel, and that’s no mean feat for somebody who is noble, rich and good-looking to boot. Of course the fact that we see him through the main character’s eyes helps.

Jessamy, the main character is definitely interesting, she is our door into the setting and an adolescent (a potentially dangerous combination), but Elliott makes it work. Jess is intelligent, determined, and, although a product of her times and place, due to her status as mixed-race she is at the same time out of both cultures, with all that such a position involves.

I enjoyed the description of the Fives trials although (but this is a matter of personal taste) I would have liked better some other activity as focus and reason for Jessamy’s defiance. After The Hunger Games gladiator-style competitions abound in YA, and even though the Fives are a sport and not a survival trial still they come out as a somewhat ‘expected’ element.

In any case, Court of Fives was a very enjoyable book, one I am sure I’ll read again waiting for the next instalment in the series.

Hello World!

Well, hello Worldpress at least.

I’m not new to blogging, I started my LiveJournal blog back in 2006, but I recently decided it was high time to have a dedicated blog for reviews and writing about books in general, so, here comes Outside of Dogs .

The title, of course is a modified take on the classic Groucho Marx quote

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

The first review is coming, and will be for Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives.