Lion’s Blood

Written by Steven Barnes
Review by India Edghill

Lion’s Blood takes place in a world in which an Egypto-Carthaginian alliance prevented the rise of Rome, creating a black empire in Africa and leaving Europe a land of primitive tribes-and, eventually, Islam as unquestioned religious master of the world. America was colonized by this black empire; known as Bilalistan, its South is also an agricultural slave-holding culture.

In 1863 (in our chronology) the Irish boy Aidan is captured by Viking slavers. Shipped to Bilalistan, Aidan is purchased by the Wakil Abu Ali. Aidan slowly adjusts to life as a slave, and becomes the friend of Kai, the Wakil’s younger son. But as the boys become men, the disparity between free and slave grows. Rivalry for the love of the beautiful half-black slave Sophia causes a rift between Aidan and Kai. And on the western borders of Bilalistan, fierce warriors of Azteca wait their chance to take back their lands. War comes, drawing all into its battle, slave and free-a war that changes Kai and Aidan’s lives forever.

Lion’s Blood is loaded with fascinating ideas that don’t quite come to life. The author has plainly worked hard to create this alternate world, but in the end, I did not find Bilalistan convincing. The key problem not addressed is the difference between slavery in the American South and slavery in the Islamic world. One of the things that made Southern slavery a “peculiar institution” in all senses of the word was its insistence that black men were not human beings. Islamic cultures have certainly practiced slavery, but color did not determine whether a man was slave or free. I found a simple color-flip of master and slave less than persuasive. The characters are a fairly standard lot, and the plot brings no surprises. Nor did I find the “Islamic” aspect of this empire very convincing. Perhaps it was the large statues of Bilal that bothered me; I believe Islam has strong prohibitions against such images. In short, I found this book adequate but predictable. Those who aren’t so familiar with the “plantation novel” sub-genre will probably enjoy Lion’s Blood a great deal.