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Zulu Heart
Steven Barnes
Warner Aspect, 463 pages

Zulu Heart
Steven Barnes
Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Steven Barnes majored in Communication Arts at Pepperdine University. He's done numerous screenplays and was a creative consultant on the Sakura Ninja series of action-adventure films and on the animated feature The Secret of Nimh.

With Larry Niven, he's written The Descent of Anansi, Achilles' Choice, Dream Park, The Barsoom Project, The California Voodoo Game, and (with Jerry Pournelle) The Legacy of Heorot. On his own, Barnes novels include The Kundalini Equation, Streetlethal, Gorgon Child and FireDance.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Lion's Blood
SF Site Review: Charisma
SF Site Review: Iron Shadows

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Zulu Heart takes us back to the world Steven Barnes introduced in Lion's Blood, in which Carthage defeated Rome, and Africa has colonized the New World. It's the year A.H. 1294, (aka 1877 A.D.), and the conflict between the Pharoah and the Empress is beginning to boil over in the New World. Kai ibn Rashid, the new Wakil, is still recovering from the psychological aftermath of the battle that ended Lion's Blood, but he can see that he and his family will inevitably be drawn into the struggle.

Zulu Heart begins rather slowly, as Barnes re-introduces us to the main characters and the setting. Married to the Empress's niece, Kai faces pressures to ally with various political factions, and also to consummate his arranged second marriage to the niece of Shaka Zulu. Bit by bit, Kai finds himself involved in events that will pit him against the power of the Pharoah, and place his family in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Kai's old friend, the ex-slave Aidan O'dere, faces his own problems including attempting to found a village of freed slaves, and living daily with the knowledge that his African neighbors would like nothing more than to see them all returned to bondage. When Kai arrives, it is an occasion for rejoicing and for fear, for Kai is seeking Aidan's help in finding a machine that will break the Caliph's code. The danger for Aidan is that in order to do so, he must return to slavery, the possible reward is permanent freedom for him and his sister.

Zulu Heart is a good book that could very well end up being the set-up for a great one. The problem that lies behind the story, and remains largely unconfronted in the novel is slavery. Much like it did in the American antebellum South in our world, slavery has insinuated itself into the economic foundations of Kai's society. And also as in our world slavery is supported and justified by power, tradition, and racism. While the wealthy landowners of New Djibouti have not yet taken to arguing, as the more radical Southern apologists did in the 1850s, that slavery is a positive good because it made possible the existence of themselves, the most civilized society to ever exist, Kai's colleagues do consider their slaves to be inferior, and probably better off as slaves than in their original homes.

Though there were many factors that led to the end of slavery and the American Civil War, two factors were at the fore, a growing condemnation of slavery on moral grounds, and technological advances that were piece by piece changing the economic equation that made slavery profitable. These factors also exist in Kai's world. There is talk of advances in transportation and communications in Africa and the New World. One of the books best action scenes involves a battle featuring an experimental submarine.

There are also those who doubt the wisdom of slavery. Though he does not speak of it publicly, Kai is among them. The combination of his training, inner self-honesty, and friendship with Aidan forces him to question the status quo, at least internally.

And that is why Zulu Heart points to the possibility of a great novel to come. Zulu Heart's story is taken up with Aidan's struggle, and the many plots that surround Kai. The story is fun, but working through the maze of intrigue leaves Kai with little time to worry about his concerns with slavery.

That concern is genuine, however. Kai is the Good Man who must decide, one way or another, what to do with the realisation that his status, his family's welfare, and his society's wealth is supported by an institution that is morally wrong. It's a question that remains unanswered in Zulu Heart.

Steven Barnes is crafting an unusually rich and deep alternate history that eschews the familiar tactic of populating the story with familiar historical characters in new guises and instead presents us with engaging, thoughtful characters who are true to their own place and time. Zulu Heart adds depth to and widens the scope of the story begun in Lion's Blood. It succeeds as a good story on its own terms, and points the way toward even better things to come.

Copyright © 2003 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson spent some time in college researching the origins of slavery in North America. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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