by Steven Barnes
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Lionís Blood is a novel of role reversal in which Europeans have been subjugated into slavery by a thriving Islamic-African culture. Set on an American continent to coincide with our timelineís American Civil War, the novel is more successful as a novel than it is as an alternate history.
Barnes tells the story of Aidan OíDere, an Irish boy who is taken captive in a raid on his isolated fishing community and taken to the New World to be sold as a slave. His quick thinking makes him the personal slave of his masterís younger son, Kai, who tends to treat him more as a friend than as property. Nevertheless, there is always the undercurrent that Kai owns Aidan and can do with him as he pleases.This is where the strength of Barnesís novel appears. From the first pages, he depicts the brutality of slavery, not only physically, but mentally. Aidan, his mother, and his sister are torn from their homes after watching his father and other villagers killed and placed in inhumane conditions. Their family is broken up upon reaching the New World, Barnes's country of Bilalistan. Although Aidan and his mother find themselves at the estate of the kind and generous Wakil Abu Ali, governor of New Djibouti, it is clear that their lives are not their own.
By making Aidan's owner relatively benign, Barnes hammers his point that slavery is always denigrating and horrible, no matter how kind the master thinks he is. Kai considers Aidan his friend, but Aidan's actions and words must always be guarded, because he knows that giving offense, even inadvertently, may cost his life. Kai, who as far as slave masters are concerned, is enlightened, still can not conceive of the inhumanity of the institution, to the extent that he views a slave's life as free since the slave doesn't have to worry about things like food and ceremonial obligations. The reader is never deceived by this way of thinking and Lion's Blood provides an excellent answer to antebellum apologists.
Barnes not only portrays the complex relationship between Kai and Aidan, but also between these characters and others, including Malik, Kai's uncle and combat trainer, Sophia, the sex slave given to Kai and desired by Aidan, and Lamiya, the daughter of an empress who is promised to Kai's older brother, Ali. None of these relationships, or others, are as simple as stereotypes would make them out to be, and Barnes handles each of them with aplomb.
Where the novel works less well is its portrayal of an alternate world. Barnes evidently sat down with a large number of associates to work through the changes which have occurred since his world branches off from our own following Socrates' decision to flee from Athens around 400 BC. Unfortunately, the exigencies of plot required Barnes to build a world similar to our own nineteenth century social structure, resulting in an Islamic-African nation in North America which practiced slavery akin to that practiced by the European nation which actually existed. While acceptable, it does strain credulity at times, and not just when Barnes refers to historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci or Amadeus Mozart. However, if the reader accepts Barnes's basic world, the plot, characters and message of Lion's Blood more than make up for a few weaknesses in setting.
Although not mentioned anywhere, it appears that Lion's Blood is only the first book of a possible series. Barnes and his characters, Kai and Aidan, leave loose ends at the end of the novel which beg to be wrapped up. Furthermore, in the final pages Barnes introduces several situations which indicate that the world of Bilalistan is set for a sea change which will mirror the end of slavery in the United States around the same time in our history.
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