Lion's Blood is a satire of race relations in this country in the latter half of the 19th century. On one hand, it is an exercise in polemics and rhetoric, but on the other, it tells an engrossing story of two boys who have a complex master-slave relationship. In many ways, it resembles an inverted Roots.
In ancient times, many Greeks, including Socrates, were attracted to Egypt, especially after a wounded Alexander claimed the throne of the Pharaoh. Alexandrian Egypt, allied with Kush, established trade routes up the Nile and into southern Africa. When Rome became a commercial and military threat, Egypt and Kush allied with Carthage and defeated Rome, which sank in obscurity. When Islam arose, Bilal, a former Abyssinian slave, saved Muhammad's daughter, Fatima, from the Prophet's enemies, carried her to Abyssinia, and married her. Fatima become an impassioned leader, second only to the Prophet himself, leading her followers on the jihad that established Islam throughout Africa.
When a plague swept through the Egyptian royalty, an Abyssinian gained the throne, giving both empires a black royalty. The plague also swept Europe, killing the bulk of the population, and leaving only small villages and scattered barbarian tribes. In 1863, the Egyptian and Abyssinian empires are the two superpowers. Egypt has colonies in Bilalistan, corresponding to the Gulf states from Alabama to southeastern Texas, but most colonists are Abyssinian or Zulu. It's just a matter of time before the colonists declare their own independence.
Aiden is an Irish boy who, along with his mother and sister, has been captured by Norse raiders. They are sold in Andalus and shipped across the Atlantic to Bilalistan. Some die, the survivors are sick, and all feel they are in hell. In Bilalistan, Aiden and his mother are sold to Dar Kush, but his sister Nessa is not. When they reach Dar Kush, the estate of the Wakil Abu Ali Jallaleddin ibn Rashid al Kush, Aiden meets the second son, Kai, and aids him in a prank that gets him switched. Kai saves him from most of the punishment and selects him as his footboy. Despite their difference in status, the boys develop a strong friendship. However, situations keep happening that bring the friendship in conflict with the master-slave relation.
This story does not pull many punches in describing the effects of chattel slavery on both master and slave. However, it dwells on the worst aspects of that institution only in passing. Barnes points out the almost universal occurrence of slavery in ancient Europe and Asia. In fact, the Norse are only slightly more energetic in slave taking in this story than their historical counterparts; the Norse role in this book parallels the role of the Zulu and other warrior tribes in Africa. Barnes is particularly harsh in his portrayal of the major Zulu character, Shaka, whom Barnes probably modeled on the historical Shaka, but the other Zulus are only slightly less fierce.
Of course, Barnes had to make choices in creating his mirror image of our timeline. He choose Islam as the major religion, probably because we know more about it, but the chances of Muhammed becoming the Prophet of Allah would seem to be rather slim. After all, Muhammed drew from Christian as well as Judaic and Zoroastrian sources for his Holy Book. In this timeline, there would be no Constantine to sanction Christianity and to establish Constantinople, there would be no Byzantine Empire to influence the Arabs, hold down the Persians, and stop the tide of Islam into Eastern Europe, and thus Christianity would be a minor religion in the Near East.
The worship of Baal, however, would likely be even more pervasive with the growth of a Carthage unhampered by Rome. Slavery in Phoenicia and her colonies was much worse than that portrayed in Lion's Blood; it involved human sacrifice, among other horrors, and was more like that practiced by the Aztecs. The slavery in this book is more a matter of economics and greed like that of the latifundia of Rome and the plantations of the American South, large commercial farms which had few mechanized tools and thus needed large numbers of human laborers. Slavery was a opportunistic solution practiced in many places and times; for example, the Nazis practiced such slavery and rumors of slavers persist around Indonesia.
This is Barnes first effort at inventing a whole new world -- well, timeline -- and it is great. The scope is larger, although the cast is still kept comfortably small. The plot is predictable, but intentionally so. He succeeded in making me see slavery from the eyes of a master and a slave and I didn't like it either way. He has the best siege sequence since the Alamo, but with survivors to tell the story; his equivalent to the "cross the line" speech was a corker! At the end, the finale was a foregone conclusion, yet still an uplifting experience.
Barnes has been growing as a writer and this novel shows his versatility. While this book may bring wider fame, I hope he also keeps writing stories with less scope but more innovative plots. Recommended to all Barnes fans and anyone who has thought seriously of the effects of slavery on this country and it's peoples.