Steven Barnes,
Zulu Heart
(Warner, 2003)

What if Africa, not Europe, had become the dominant world power? It's an interesting idea, and considerably less overworked than the simple "What if Nazis/the South/the English won the war?"

Steven Barnes began exploring such a world in Lion's Blood through the eyes of the privileged black family, especially youngest son Kai. Living among the luxury of Kai's plantation were the slaves who would eventually upset the whole system, especially recent transplant Aidan O'Dere, himself once a child of a privileged family. Lion's Blood was Barnes' first voyage into the alternate world of Bilalistan (America) and stayed close to the secure realms of Kai's family lands, while occasionally stumbling its way through the unfamiliar lands of New Djibouti (the southeast). With Zulu Heart, Barnes returns a seasoned explorer, and sets out on a far more ambitious journey across New Djibouti.

Zulu Heart spends more time looking beyond the borders of Kai's lands. As the adventure moves from Aidan's free white crannog to the governing chambers of New Djibouti, Bilalistan begins to take on a substance of its own. The pressure of external politics and the swarm of peripheral characters make Barnes' new New World seem a legitimate part of an alternate earth, instead of a color negative of the Americas. This sense of solidity and presence moves Zulu Heart away from the morality tale sensibilities that sometimes hobbled Lion's Blood. It also gives the characters some solid earth to tread.

The characters themselves have also grown more solid. Lion's Blood was mostly concerned with the childhood and adolescence of Kai and Aidan, and the focus on their insecurities.

Both men are now settled, with adult concerns, and less prone to long fretting over the rightness of their moral position. Aidan in particular seems rooted in moral certainty, while Kai has learned to justify unpleasant behavior in the name of pragmatism and politics. Neither one is ever wholly right, but it's interesting to watch these adults who have grown sure of themselves get rattled. But even while Kai struggles to prevent war and Aidan looks for ways to free an entire slave class, the real show-stealer is Nandi, Kai's second wife. Fierce, and directly emotional in a family built on political scheming, Nandi adds much needed heart to the dominant society of Bilalistan.

Throughout Zulu Heart, Barnes demonstrates a rare ability to share his moral and philosophical theories without turning the story into a morality play. I cringed when I realized Aidan was going to undergo a martial arts training sequence. I have never read a training sequence that didn't serve as a soapbox for the creator's beliefs while bogging down the plot. But Barnes manages to spend the perfect amount of time on Aidan's "torture" sessions, creating a believable martial regimen, exploring the beliefs of his characters and sharing the pain of intense physical development with the reader. Nor is the larger story ever ignored to focus on this part of the plot. Every minor storyline here moves naturally through and around the larger political concerns of warfare and slavery, so that Kai's training, Nandi's marital insecurities and even Kai's painfully slow spiritual development add color and meaning to the grand schemes while contributing to the marching pace of the oncoming war.

It's sometimes daunting to start reading a new series, unsure of the customs of the strange world that awaits. New voyagers to the lands of New Djibouti shouldn't worry, or fear they need the passport Lion's Blood. The New World may be wild and unexplored, but adventure and hope await those with a Zulu Heart.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 29 November 2003

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