I was not prepared to love this book as much as I did.
This was recommended to me by a friend, and I picked it up somewhat as a curiousity. I like sci-fi and alternate histories, and thought this might be like dozens of others I’ve read.
It is the telling of an America where Alexander the Great didn’t die, and didn’t go on to conquer the East but instead conquered the West, setting up the rise of the Abyssinian and Egyptian kingdoms, changing the course of Western Civilization, and bringing about the discovery of the American continents by black Africans.
That is the gist of the background, but the story is about Kai, a young man of a ruling family of Bilalistan, roughly equivalent to the states of the Deep South in America. It’s 1863, the western territories are threatened by the frontier clashes between New Djibouti and the Aztec empire, and political intrigue in the East give rise to a struggle for power and dominance.
Kai is the younger son of a powerful but constrained man who rules over a large estate somewhere in East Texas (not called by that name, of course). He is trained to be the thoughtful, wise, but second son–he learns to fight from his uncle Malik, a strong, powerful, taciturn, rigid warrior; he learns wisdom from Babatunde, a Sufi adherent in a land of strict Islam; he learns love from Sophia and Nandi and especially the unreachable Lamiya. And he learns unteachable lessons of leadership, trust, betrayal, friendship, and release from his once-personal slave Aidan, stolen from Ireland and brought to America through the Middle Passage.
The story was enjoyable at first, but I read it in spurts. Then somewhere around the middle Mr. Barnes convinced me. This was a real man in this story, coming to terms with who he is as a man, learning that teaching and wisdom and culture all are guide to action, but it is in the heart of the man where the choices come, and it is in one’s own actions where one’s humanity is expressed.
I have to say, I fell in love with Kai. He was a real, living person in this book, flawed, conflicted, sometimes confident, sometimes despairing, sometimes resigned, but he continued forward. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this was the standout.
I was so deeply impressed with the humanness of it all–the people who come into the book are real and vivid and different. I felt as if I was living with them, and when events occurred that were foreign to me, I stayed with it, because I wanted to learn what this was all about.
Mr. Barnes blends in a mythical story of African sovereignty and empire with true-to-life characters who respond to events and who act according to their own, very real natures. It was believable from start to finish.
I am looking forward to the next book, which promises more about Kai and his life.
Now of course one thing must be mentioned, because it is simply there, yet it is not the focus of the story, and it is this: there is a subtle retelling of the story of American slavery here, but the roles are of course reversed. Where America of our real timeline had enslaved black Africans for centuries, in this mythical timeline it is an America (of sorts) that enslaves white Europeans. It is not a parody of slavery nor is it simply a reversal. Mr. Barnes has thought things through, and events that involve slavery and the interaction between slave and master are a retelling of “real” American slavery, but with the thoughtful twist of “This is what it would be like if the black Muslim Africans were the slave-owners and the white Christian Europeans were the slaves.” It is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and often eye-blinking to see what it was like, and to feel sympathy for one’s “own” people, and then to think “Oh my gosh. This is what it was like for _them_.”