Steven Barnes, Lion's Blood (Warner Books, 2002)
Steven Barnes, Zulu Heart (Warner Books, 2003)
Heather Alexander, Insh'allah: The Music of Lion's Blood (Sea Fire Productions, 2002)

Lion's Blood is a novel of alternate history, a genre which is certainly ripe with possibility and which is just as certainly a cinch to screw up. Far too many authors believe that tweaking a single historical event is enough to alter known history into something entirely and credibly bizarre. Unfortunately, folks, rarely has a single event or person been responsible for the history of the world as we know it. Further, characters of that world must behave as though they are native to the alternate world, not merely transplanted there from our known reality. Steven Barnes knows that, and thankfully, is willing to put in the time and effort necessary to build his alternate America from scratch.

In the world of Lion's Blood, history began to change in the time of Socrates. Certain pivotal events occurred differently, and history continues to grow from there, with not just one historical event differing, but many. The end result is that in the age which we consider America's "antebellum," the country, and indeed the world, is chiefly ruled by Islamic nations. Judaism is recognized, but Christianity never really amounted to much. Viking slave traders traffic in white flesh from the barbarian wilds of Europe. Mexico, never having been invaded by the Spanish, is known as Azteca, and is still ruled by Montezuma. Other indigenous tribes of North America have been pushed to the North by the blacks who have colonized the New World, known now as Bilalistan.

Our story opens in the Islamic year 1279 (our A.D. 1863). Viking raiders invade an Irish village, killing many villagers and kidnapping many more to sell as slaves. Among those taken is a young boy named Aidan, his twin sister Nessa, and their mother Deirdre. Though Deirdre desperately tries to keep her family together, Nessa is sold separately and disappears. Aidan and his mother end up in Bilalistan as slaves to the highly regarded Wakil, Abu Ali on his estate of Dar Kush.

As Deirdre works herself to the bone, Aidan is assimilated into "Ghost Town," the compound where the slaves live, and indoctrinated into the combined pagan/Christian faith which most of the slaves practice. The Wakil's younger son, Kai, who is approximately the same age as Aidan, begins to spend time with the slave boy, eventually taking him as his personal servant. Over the years, Kai and Aidan, while maintaining the outward roles of master and slave, are able to learn to trust each other as friends, and develop a bond of love and respect. The Wakil is unusually humane to his slaves, allowing them to practice their own religion, feeding them properly, and treating them with some shred of dignity, and Kai is a thoughtful and decent sort much like his father.

Though the relationship between Aidan and Kai and their parallel coming-of-age stories are central to the novel, Lion's Blood is by no means a one-note performance. Barnes weaves an intricate tale here, with plenty of action, intrigue, romance, and philosophy threaded throughout. Subplots involving political maneuverings among the Zulus of Azania and the leaders of New Djibouti, a slave revolt, martial arts training, two different love triangles, and a war with Azteca all keep the interest level extremely high — this is one of those books that held my interest no matter what was going on around me, and I have Steven Barnes to thank for a missed bus stop and a long trudge home in the rain. There's literally not a dull moment in this novel. Characterization is marvelous, with few to no underdeveloped personas — Barnes has a way of sketching even the most minor player with just enough skillful strokes to subtly and simply illustrate personalities and motivations without longwinded narrative. Some characters, such as Babatunde (an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like figure who inducts Kai into Sufism) are so beautifully written as to become instant literary heroes, worthy of space in the heart right there next to Tolkien's Gandalf or de Lint's Jilly Coppercorn.

Zulu Heart picks up where Lion's Blood left off, with Aidan having gained his freedom fighting side by side with Kai in a battle against the Aztecs, and having left for the Northern Territory to set up a colony with other free whites. His colony, or crannog, is persecuted by the local blacks. Meanwhile, Kai has become the new Wakil and is heavily embroiled in political intrigue brewing between the Empress of the Abyssinian Empire and the Pharoah of Egypt. A secessionist movement is forming, and many Bilalistanis would like to be a free nation. Kai is working with the underground secessionists, and his spies have identified a code device in the Pharoah's lands which could be critical to his cause. Conveniently, he's also located Aidan's lost sister Nessa, and a mission to steal the device can be combined with a mission to free her from her master.

Kai enlists Aidan's help, promising that he in his role as Wakil will protect Aidan's folk whether or not the mission is successful. Then Kai and Babatunde set out to train Aidan as a martial artist; in order to accomplish his mission he must assume the role of a boxer and return — voluntarily — to slavery!

Zulu Heart is as deliciously complex as its predecessor: Kai is not only involved in political intrigue, but has just taken Zulu princess Nandi as a second wife (perfectly allowable in Islam), who may or may not be cuckolding him and plotting his death. Aidan and Kai's relationship grows richer with each interaction. Babatunde, Nandi, first wife Lamiya ... each adds flavor to the story, and Zulu Heart is as riveting as Lion's Blood; even more so, perhaps, because in this book the intrigue is integral to the plot and yet so deftly played out that hero and villain are masked until the last possible moment. Barnes brilliantly leads his reader through mystery without ever resorting to blatant red herrings or false clues.

Barnes employes two devices which, for me, make Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart the best of the best in alternate history. First, he addresses religion and spirituality. Or, I should say, addresses religion and spirituality in a fair-minded and evenhanded way. He does a great job of crafting an amalgam spirituality for his white European slaves; a combination of Celtic and other European pagan faiths with the less widely practiced Christianity, similar to the mingling of Islam, Christianity, and African religions that developed in the slave quarters of the Deep South in our history. (And, in fact, this is what actually happened with Celtic paganism in Europe in our own reality: as the Romans and later the Saxons and Normans conquered and enslaved the Celtic nations, Celtic religion was colored by and absorbed into the faiths of the invaders. Barnes understands history as it is and adeptly molds it into history as it might have been.) In addition, I've seen very little exploration of Islam in speculative fiction or fantasy — with the current troubles in the world I don't expect to see that changing anytime soon — and I found Barnes' work incredibly illuminating. His discussion of the Islamic faith, and of the Sufi branch in particular, helped me to find some insight that in all honesty I'd been sadly lacking. Specifically, the use of the Enneagram (The Sign of the Presence of God) as both a guide into the principles of the faith and as a martial arts instruction was inspired and fascinating. I found myself deeply touched, and inexorably drawn to learn more about Sufi spirituality in the future. I doubt Barnes' intent is to convert the reader, but he does a marvelous job of broadening the reader's mind ... and heart.

The second thing which impresses me immensely is the utterly proficient manner in which Barnes builds his alternate world. Less confident authors tend to overcompensate in these situations: every minor deviation from the "real world" must be addressed and explained in detail. Here the author trusts his own skill as well as the imaginations of his readers. More than enough background exists here for the reader to understand and follow the narrative — the intelligent reader should be able to fill in the details. For example, scientific knowledge has clearly not developed as it did during the Renaissance and eventually the Industrial Revolution; however, science and progress have just as clearly marched on. Thus, people are beginning to travel by dirigible and steam powered ships, but it seems that industrialization overall is much further behind than at the same time in our own history. Da Vinci makes a brief appearance and contribution to the tale, but much more emphasis is placed on the technology that might have developed if the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians hadn't been lost in the depths of history. The relevant cultures are discussed in detail, without the need to fill the reader in on what's happening in every last nook and cranny of the world.

In addition, Barnes has the ability to plumb the inner workings of the human condition without resorting to blatant moralization. Only the very shallowest of Barnes' audience will have trouble seeing beneath the obvious surface message (yes, slavery is a bad thing, but if that's all you get from these books I suggest scaling back your literary choices to something more along the line of supermarket periodicals) to the deeper, richer exploration of friendship, loyalty, and humanity.

These novels are nothing short of superb. Clearly room has been left for a sequel to Zulu Heart, and I look forward to it; indeed, there's material in the Lion's Blood universe for several more books and I hope Steven Barnes will continue in this vein.

Oh, but wait, there's more. Music is important in a slave culture — illiteracy is a tool used by masters to keep slaves dependent, and as a result continuity of culture often depends on oral history through song. Music plays a large part in the world of Lion's Blood, and the songs are all written by well-known folk and filk singer Heather Alexander. She brings Barnes' world alive in melody with her CD Insh'allah: The Music of Lion's Blood. Barnes says in his introduction to Lion's Blood:

"It is the beautiful and talented Heather who composed 'Laddie Are Ya Workin'', 'Deirdre's Funeral Song', 'We Are Bound', and 'The Mushroom Song' as well as other songs inspired by this project. All are ... used here only by Heather's grace. As lovely as they are in print, they must be experienced in concert or recording for full effect. Ms. Alexander is an artist of the highest water...."

There's really no other way to say it. Heather Alexander has indeed done an amazing job setting Barnes' world to music. "Fire on the Sea" opens the album with driving, pounding drums, foreboding horn, and urgent vocals bringing to life the invasion of the Celtic village and the capture of the slaves. "Laddie Are Ya Workin'" is a mournful slave work song, its rhythm perfectly measured to the beat of bodies in the fields bending, pulling, scything, lifting. "We Are Bound" is a Celtic-themed spiritual, written for scenes in which the slaves meet for their form of worship. A low drumbeat sets the tone as Heather sings with a deep and again mournful voice, and backup vocalists Mary Benson, Hank Cramer, Dan Maher, and Jon Lindahl provide incredible resonating, rising harmonies — this song in particular is chilling in its beauty and hits the listener in the very center of the solar plexus; breathtaking.

"Green are the Hills" is simplicity itself, composed of only Heather's sweet clear fiddle and her equally sweet voice against a background of trickling rain and far off thunder, the sad song of a slave mourning lost home and lost love:

Green are the hills of the land I call home
far across the sea
And green are the eyes of my one true love
who was cruelly torn from me

Red is the sand of the land I now roam
in the heat of the day
And red was the blood that was spilled from her wounds
as her spirit slipped away.

And "Deirdre's Lament," with only a pipe intro and Heather singing a capella, is a poignant and fitting funereal tribute to Aidan's lost mother:

Short is the span of the mortal heart
Long is the length of grieving
Deep is the wound only time can heal
Shallow, the words of comforting

Sharp is the pain of the parting of souls
Dull is the mind of it's needing
Cool is the touch of Death's merciless hand
Hot are the tears of the weeping

This is one of the best songs on the CD, not only because of the lovely melody, but also due to Alexander's skill with the ancient Irish lament. She sets new and inspired words to the classic form and yet this song sounds familiar as any traditional tune.

"Fresh Hops and Hemp" is really the only song on the CD that I'm unhappy with, and not because of any problem with the song itself. It's more a problem with me, and with how I envision the tune. The words are those of a drinking song, but the tune is too slow and far too mellow. I love the lyrics, and I like the melody ... separately. But I'd like to have seen these lyrics set to something a little more raucous, a little more rollicking. Even slaves have to enjoy themselves once in a while, and even in real world history they had a few joyful songs.

"The Mushroom Song," theme to a slave uprising in the novel, is a disarmingly sweet little piece with Heather overlaying her own mellow and hypnotic voice in round after round. It's a tasty and intense a capella piece that ninety-nine out of a hundred singers couldn't pull off without sounding smarmy or melodramatic: Heather is the one who can. "Gruagach" is a song about monsters, which are all too literally real in Lion's Blood, and it's suitably creepy. Here Heather sings with a bit more of her wild filk-y performer's spirit, and it's both a dark and a fun song — something about it reminds me of Heather's "Black Jack's Lady," in spirit at least. "Insh'allah" shifts the song narrative from the Aidan/slave perspective to Kai's internal struggle, and "Battle for Mosque Al'Amu" shifts it right back again (this tune is especially thrilling, as it's an intricate war march melding both Irish and African sounds to amazing effect). "New Northwest" also makes use of both Middle Eastern and Irish themes, but as a denizen of the Pacific Northwest (as are Heather Alexander and Steven Barnes), I can also hear something of the musical stylings popular in this area. I don't have the words for it — it's something of the lyrics, something of the music, something of Heather's vocals on this particular tune — it's there, but it's a mysterious ineffable something.

Interspersed with the generally more Celtic-themed songs are both original and traditional instrumental pieces; these pieces tend to be more Middle Eastern/African themed. "The Enneagram" is a wonderful meditative piece, with the melody following itself in, out, and around just as the lines in the Sign of the Presence of God. "Wild Seeds," written by Heather and uber-talented drummer Dan Ochipinti (also the drummer for Gaia Consort) is a funky belly-dance type piece, complicated and intoxicating with Heather's fiddle and Dan's myriad percussive instruments. "Path to Alexandria/Mushtaq's Jig/Sleepy Camel" and "Road to Lisdoonvarna/Morrison's Jig/Drowsy Maggie" are traditional pieces with similar themes that Heather has arranged as perfect interludes between some of the heavier pieces on the CD, and they are marvelously presented by Heather and Dan Ochipinti.

Finally, the CD closes with "Destiny," an interwoven countersinging of Kai's theme, "Insh'allah," and Aidan's theme, "New Northwest." This is done as a glorious, uplifting anthem and wraps up both the CD and the novel themes in one brief but sweeping Celtic/Islamic style coda.

I'm sure other authors and musicians have collaborated on book/music combinations and will again in the future. I can point to Steven Brust and Megan Lindholm's Gypsy, set beautifully to music on Boiled in Lead's Songs from The Gypsy, as one fine example of the concept. I doubt many past or future collaborations will be as thorough, as imaginative, and as enchanting as the alliance between Steven Barnes and Heather Alexander. Fabulous books and fabulous music: each only glows more brightly in the light of the other.

[Maria Nutick]

Visit Steven Barnes and the folk of Bilalistan here.

Check out the incomparable Heather Alexander.