The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Web Magazine and Sourcebooks

Vol 1, Issue #9
"Stand By For Mars!"
September 2006

The Thunder Child: Book Reviews
Fiction Reviews by Ryan Brennan

Zulu Heart
Steven Barnes

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Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes, is the big sprawling epic sequel to the same author's Lion's Pride: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America and could easily signal several more installments.

In this alternative history, Africans replace Europeans as the dominant power race in the West. With the tables turned, Whites are the slaves, Africans the masters. It is 1877 and in the homeland, hostilities brew between the Pharaoh in Egypt and the Empress in Abyssinia. America has been founded and settled by Africans and named Bilalistan. The land is divided into the North and South, roughly equivalent to the state of the U.S. at the time of the Civil War.

The North, called New Alexandria for its ties with the Pharaoh's Egypt, maintains a more lenient attitude and policy towards "ghosts" or "bellies" as the Whites are called. In the South, Djibouti, with connections to the Empress, uses Whites as laborers and domestics.

An underground railroad, termed "the River," transports escaping slaves to the North. Slaves can buy or earn their freedom, but they can't escape the racism that faces them almost everywhere.

Kai, Djibouti's Wakil, a position of power and influence inherited from his father, a hero of the war with the Aztecs, is an enlightened slave owner. His Solomon-like duty as judge, negotiator and arbitrator calls for a man who can see beyond the obvious with both wisdom and compassion. He shares a bond with Irish slave Aidan, the two more like brothers than Master and slave. Kai is the wealthiest man in Djibouti, owner of Lion's Pride, a company vaguely reminiscent of Britain's East India Trading Company. He has undergone vigorous and strenuous mental and physical training which makes him one of the most formidable adversaries in battle. Few are privileged to see Kai in this state, and those who do usually die.

Relatively young, Kai has many enemies who are jealous of his vast land holdings -- the estate known as Dar Kush (near Galveston Bay in Texas) -- untouchable wealth and seemingly charmed life. But there are dark corners in his story and all around him swirls intrigue and deceit.

Author Barnes has a very interesting concept here and one that has plausibility in its favor. His research into the Islamic religion, the myths of Africa, and the customs of the Zulus pays off in an easy and convincing versimilitude that both teaches and entertains. Barnes wisely alludes to events in the previous novel so that a new reader never feels lost in the grand scale of the author's work and allows this novel to stand on its own.

Many characters inhabit this story so a great deal of time is spent introducing or re-introducing them. We meet Kai's wife, Lamiya, his childhood friend, Fodjour, son of the next wealthiest family in Djibouti, his sister, Eleyna, Eleyna's best friend, Chifi, daughter of Maputo Kokossa, inventor of a new kind of submersible ship, Allahbas, Fodjour's mother, his faithful aid Kebwe, and his guru, Babatunde, among many others.

It is with the appearance of his second wife, for Kai is allowed several if he so wishes, that the major characters are established. This woman is none other than Nandi, daughter of Cetshwayo, brother of Shaka Zulu and the warrior who led the Zulu nation against the British in the famous battle at Rorke's Drift.

It is also around this time before any significant action takes place -- although an exciting encounter with one of Kai's early foes whets our appetite for more of the same. A short, but suspenseful siege of Ghost Town, home of the Irish Whites, primes the reader for future action. Up to this point the story is embroiled with court and political intrigue as Kai is tested and taunted in a series of political parties and high society gatherings. Protocol, etiquette and ritual are essential elements of society here. Words, or the lack of them, a misdirected smile or frown, or speaking to the wrong people can turn the political tide. In these passages there is an echo of the similar maneuverings in Frank Herbert's classic Dune. Here Kai learns to be a diplomat and political strategist as well as a fierce warrior.

In some ways this is as much the story of Aidan as it is Kai. Long passages detail Aidan's training as a warrior and his efforts to recover his long, lost twin sister. Barnes has built a duality into this story. Although Aidan has an actual twin, his sister, Kai is something of his male twin. They basically strive towards similar goals both in general as well as in some very specific ones.

A war is brewing throughout the story. Threats of secession are voiced and there is a general air of unrest in both the North and the South. Advantages are played out in an attempt to secure the upper hand. The Caliph, ruler of New Alexandria, positions his ships in Djibouti harbor on the pretext of mounting a further campaign against the Aztecs, but no one believes him. Eventually, a massive naval battle occurs, incorporating the marvelous submersible, the Tortoise. But full out war will have to wait until the next novel.

Barnes, a Hugo nominee with 22 books under his belt, has crafted an interesting and well told story. Along with Dune the reader may feel that the tone or atmosphere of Star Wars and Gone With The Wind has been captured in certain passages. This is a book rich in character and well worth reading. A third book in this series would be welcome. Barnes' newest novel is Great Sky Woman.

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