Steven Barnes,
Lion's Blood
(Aspect/Warner, 2002)

If you are considering reading Lion's Blood, if you think you might like to settle in and enjoy the story, do yourself a favor: don't read the book jacket blurbs. I winced at the grand proclamations of deep social relevance and moral teaching, and passed through the first several chapters of the book dreading The Moral. Fortunately, Steven Barnes' writing was strong enough to make me forget my fears of Aesopian fables, and I settled into the story of Aidan O'Dere.

Aidan is the son of an Irish chieftain, heading into manhood when his village is destroyed by Northern raiders and the survivors sold into slavery. Though some go the Middle East, most end up in the divided, but largely Muslim New World, Bilalistan. Torn from everyone else in his group, including his twin sister, Aidan and his mother wind up together at the home of a relatively kind master, Abu Ali, the Waila high official. Aidan wins the patronage and friendship of Abu Ali's son Kai, and the conflicts between personal loyalties and the howling injustices of Bilalistan society power the story through war and politics.

There are problems native to any such story, and Barnes doesn't not completely avoid them. Such a radically altered history demands some heavy explaining, and the quick rattle down of an early fall in Rome and a plague of Black Death in Egypt simply didn't convince me. His research is solid (I especially have to agree with his choice of the wonderful Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond) , but somehow doesn't pull together quite well enough for a new whole.

Other cultural questions bothered me: what were so many representational illustrations doing in Muslim homes? Would the Zulu have really kept so much of their culture given an earlier and more intensive exposure to Middle Eastern attitudes? Why wasn't China more of a player, if it was one at all? There's also the problem of constantly conveying race in writing. A text character is basically colorless, genderless and omniregional unless the author insists otherwise, and the natural reader reaction is to view them as more less like themselves. This forces Barnes to constantly comment on the color of characters' skin, and it gets to be a bit much as the book goes on and the idea that black = privilege is ground into the reader's mind. At times it works as a reminder of the constant racial classification in such a society, but too often it's just too much description.

If Lion's Blood is supposed to be making a political statement, it's hard to spot anything revolutionary. Slavery is bad? Blacks and whites are equally capable of evil? These might have been startling, unsettling notions 100 or 50 or even 20 years ago, but by now anyone who hasn't gotten the message is being willfully ignorant. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the story is the open importance of religion in the lives Aidan, Kai and the people of Bilalistan. Despite the claims of slaveowners, conversion in the actual American South was never a real goal for slaves; many were outright forbidden from practicing Christianity. The Islamic masters of Bilalistan clearly do seek real conversion for their livestock, and the complications of such an idea are intriguing.

But whatever political overtones Lion's Blood may have, its main value is as a good story. The fates of the slaves are realistically brutal that Aidan's eventual fate, even as hero of the story, is unsure. The politics of the New World are well handled, and concern over how it would all turn out kept me up through the night. Nor does the story cheat by handing over a pat, happy ending. Aidan, the slave leader Brian, and even the Wakil's self-doomed family are worth caring about. If you want an intense look at culture and race, read Barnes' bibliography. If you're looking for an entertaining story with enough tension to keep you reading for six hours straight, read Lion's Blood.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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