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Lion's Blood
Steven Barnes
Warner Aspect, 528 pages

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Turnabout social satires have long been popular in SF and Alternate History. American writers, particularly, love to speculate on the South winning the Civil War or the Native Indians defeating American expansionism. But Lion's Blood is the first novel I've read in which North America was settled by Muslim Africans who imported Northern Europeans as slaves. (Think Gone With the Wind with a regal black Rhett Butler and a cast of kowtowing Irish.)

A lot of reverse-role stories founder because they are strictly satiric and the societies depicted make no sense (Catherine Asaro's The Last Hawk springs to mind, or that dreadful Star Trek Next Gen episode with the macho women keeping harems of perfumed girly men). But there is nothing simplistic about Stephen Barnes' depiction of bondage and freedom in African North America. Starting with the defeat of Rome by Carthage, Barnes builds a credible world history and a complex political and religious background for "Bilalistan" of 1861, and then he populates it with vivid characters.

Kidnapped as a terrified child from his Irish fishing village, Aiden O'Dare is transported in filthy, stinking cargo holds across a world bigger than he'd ever imagined, and then sold as a slave to work on a plantation for dark-skinned foreigners whose language and culture are utterly alien to him. Angry and embittered, Aiden longs to escape, but it seems that for whites, the only escape from Dar Kush is death.

Exactly his age but on the opposite end of Dar Kush's social scale is Kai, second son of the Wakil Abu Ali. Although Kai lives amid lavish luxury, he feels imprisoned by chains of social and familial obligation. Constantly studying with his tutor or drilling in combat with his uncle, the lonely boy envies the apparently carefree life of the estate's slaves who do not have to face enormous and frightening responsibilities.

When Kai takes Aiden as his footboy, the two strike up a friendship that almost transcends their differences. But as adults these two good men are thrown into brutal conflict in a world that will not allow them to be equal.

There is a lot of strong writing in Lion's Blood. In particular, Barnes excels at creating complex, conflicted characters, and his depiction of cultures and religions is detailed and thoughtful. Even the inevitable digs about racial superiority are cleverly done. And there is also plenty of action to move the story along.

All that said, I found Lion's Blood hard slogging. This is, overwhelmingly, a Guy Book, loaded with testosterone and carnage. The men spend page after page fighting or pondering war, honour and courage, and the women (at least all the women who count) are gorgeous and happy to have babies. Female readers are liable to find this focus less than compelling, and while Barnes writes several credible women characters, their debasement and lack of choice in this society is even more profound than the men's.

Barnes doesn't go overboard in his turnabout treatment of the whites -- in fact, he could have made his story considerably grimmer -- but there's a lot of gruesome cruelty in this novel even before the bloody war with the Aztecs gets underway. More seriously, at several points I found myself jerked out of the story by events which seemed excessively implausible, or annoyingly stupid. (Would you try to kill a renowned swordsman with a sword if you had poison and guns available?) Barnes skates over several shaky plot points in his drive to take Lion's Blood to a particular outcome.

Fortunately, after five hundred pages of torment and bloodshed, Barnes wraps up with a satisfying conclusion.

There's a lot of intellectual meat in Lion's Blood and many readers, especially Americans, will enjoy this challenging novel very much. Readers with a low tolerance for macho heroics will not fare so well.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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