Aidan understood why: the shambling, shamefaced Riley had preferred captivity to death. Aidan hated him.
He should have died! Died as had Mahon O'Dere, fighting to be free, fighting for his family. Better a swift and endless sleep than this disgrace.
Had not Aidan a sister and a mother to protect, he would have chosen the first good moment to jump overboard and drown himself. A brawny Northman locked the chains into place with thunderous hammer strokes. Nessa tried to kick him, and he casually backhanded her across the face so hard that at first Aidan thought her neck was snapped. She fell limply back, but the giant simply grabbed one of her ankles and dragged her forward. For Aiden, it was like watching events in a nightmare, submerging him in an ocean of rage so deep it blackened thought.
Now it was his mother's turn. Never had he seen her like this, wild-eyed, and almost like a drunkard. Her eyes were rolled up exposing the whites, and she pulled against the pig-eyed Northman's brawny arms. Oh please, Mother of God," she screamed over and over again in a voice not entirely her own.
After the chain was hammered on she was shoved aside and Aidan hauled into position. He struggled without effect, and the Northman slapped him across the face. Stars exploded, the white sparks extinguished in an ocean of red, and then black. When he came to his senses, the first strokes had already fallen, linking him to the wall.
Nonetheless, one way masters kept slave races under control was to restrict or prohibit literacy, and both Africans and Celts knew this well from experience. The Afterword contains an alternate to our world timeline. The novel's Web site includes an expanded version of this timeline, with the births of Christ and Mohammad and some interesting additions.
Socrates flees Athens in BC perhaps with some assistance. Saul of Tarsis dies in 30 AD from being "kicked in head by donkey. Thus Barnes establishes the primacy of Islam over Christianity and of African cultures over European ones, and paves the way for Islamic Africans to settle the "New World" and become slave-keepers. Barnes also provides the date by two calendars -- Islamic and Gregorian -- at the opening of each chapter. In addition to exposing the alternative calendric system, the technique subtly implies a sort of double vision of the past in the viewpoints of Kai and Aidan.
There are several other points of connection, too many to discuss in detail here. Readers interested in this topic should consult some of the books Barnes lists in his Afterword to Lion's Blood. It would have been too easy to choose the Zulus or another strongly led, populous African culture as the masters in this alternate world.
Barnes wisely chooses not a particular culture, but a religious group -- the people of Islam -- as the masters. This is a neat mirror of how history played out in our own world, since the majority of the countries that colonized Africa had rulers who were nominally Christians. The followers of Mohammad and Christ both come from a wide range of nations and cultures. The relationship between Kai and Aidan is the central source of the novel's story, and Barnes adds a few subplots to fill out what is already a densely imagined life for the two boys.
Kai's brother Ali is the Wakil's heir, and bears the majority of the responsibility for maintaining and extending the Wakil's power in New Djibouti province. The Wakil wants to arrange a marriage between Ali and an Abyssinian noblewoman named Lamiya, who's been selected by the Empress of Abyssinia herself to be Ali's wife.
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The relationship between Ali, Lamiya, and Kai adds a romantic element that gives the story a richer texture. Many historical elements from our own world remain the same in Lion's Blood. They provide a wealth of familiar touchstones that increase the story's verisimilitude, making Bilalistan a place we're sure we must have seen somewhere. Credit this to Barnes' skill in weaving vivid but brief detail into the flow of the story, without halting the action to describe minutiae. Spiritual beliefs often get short shrift in SF, but that's certainly not the case here.
The novel would've been far weaker, if not an outright failure, had it ignored the interaction of spirituality with politics and technology. Barnes not only breathes life into Islamic society and Celtic proto-Christianity, he adds another element to the mix: the branch of Islam known as Sufism.
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Sufis believe that nothing separates God from his Creation; that humans are blinded to the divine solely by their attachment to their material form. The religion teaches its adherents to purify their hearts, so that the Divine may manifest therein. As one scholar says , "Only then may man ascend from the level of his animal nature to the level of the true human being. Christian teachings also reflect this in their basis on a single creator who cares for humanity and the requirement to rise above one's "animal nature. The exploration of self as part of the search for the divine is common to both Christian and Islamic adherents.
Barnes introduces Sufi beliefs as a way for Kai, as a follower of Islam, to give a new interpretation to what his ancestors did and said, and search for an acceptable moral compass by which he can guide his life. Barnes uses the Enneagram the Sign of the Presence of God, or wajh Allah 2 , the visible symbol of the Sufi search, as an ever-present reminder to the reader that important spiritual matters are part of the story.
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He also employs the Enneagram as a martial-arts meditation and training device he is himself a martial-arts practitioner to layer more meaning into its presence. A key element in the novel is a mystical reference to the "lion's blood" which is said to run in the Wakil's family. The power of this ichor brings on what some writers have called "battle fever," in which the blood seems to sing in the veins as the warrior fights.
The Vikings called such warriors berserkers, which connotes chaotic behavior. Barnes clearly prefers a more controlled approach, shaped and governed by years of practice, and blends it into both the well-drawn combat scenes and discussions of spirituality in the novel. Another subplot involves Shaka Zulu, who's often been portrayed in books and movies as a brilliant tactician and field general with a megalomaniac's sense of self-worth. Barnes doesn't stint any of Shaka's "real-world" reputation in his novel, and his Shaka is every bit as arrogant, bloodthirsty and single-minded as any other megalomaniac in history.
A few details were jarring, such as references to "spanking palms together. It's uncertain whether this was a literal translation of the words in Arabic that refer to the behavior of "applause," or something else entirely.
A reference to Kai's "sainted mother" is made from that character's viewpoint. I've heard of Islamic martyrs, but are there Islamic saints? This is never explained. I stopped reading to take note of these oddities, but they didn't detract from the overall story. Lion's Blood is very much a coming-of-age story, involving characters on both sides of a social divide. Aidan never completely gives up his struggle to be free again, but he's not the pure-hearted hero of medieval Europe's chivalric tales.
Kai is of the masters, but his deep emotions and spiritual life force him to examine, and later question, the fairness of what his ancestors have done to Aidan's people and others. They are equally important as "heroes" because both undergo major changes which cause ripple effects in the lives of other characters. With masterful pacing and a very realistic setting, Barnes peoples his alternate world with vibrant characters in an engrossing and often though-provoking story of how different elements in life can bind us in varied and sometimes conflicting ways.
Honor, duty, love, and social station create bonds for us all, and how we fight against or accept those bonds can determine our future. Few novels in alternate history have delved as deeply as this one into the lives of Islamic people as major characters, or Islam as a religion and culture. The lives of Africans in the slaving years, and what it was like to be stolen from their homes and sold to others who considered them less than human, have been touched on in some SF novels, but not in such an outright manner.
Lion's Blood tells a good story, and its job as a novel is accomplished even if it does no more than that. But if it makes even one reader stop and think about those who experienced slavery or oppression, then it's done a service to humanity as well.
Is alternate history a worthwhile method for examining issues of slavery and civil rights with respect to how modern society might comprehend it? In talented hands, yes. Can any free citizen ever truly understand what it was like to be enslaved? Not unless they are somehow transported into the mind and body of a slave. But in Lion's Blood , Barnes made me stop often to consider what the idea of living under someone else's thumb.
I found it a chilling experience. 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 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.
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. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account.