Lion’s Blood – Steven Barnes: why do I feel I’ve seen this all before? Oh, right

Okay, at just over half-way / just over 200 pages, I’m calling it a day on Lion’s Blood. This was a SantaThing recommendation and I can absolutely see why – but sadly, it’s just not capturing my interest.

The premise is good – great, in fact. The fulcrum of change here is the Carthaginian assault on Rome. In the chronology of Lion’s Blood, Hannibal conquered Rome; and Alexander survived his Indian campaign and remarried, with the children of his second marriage founding two great African Empires. Without the power of a Roman Emperor behind it, Christianity is a two bit religion, and Islam dominates the Empire, which has conquered the New World and buys slaves from Europe.

So far, so good. Sadly, this is where I feel the invention stopped. While the curtains are all different colours, it’s a terribly familiar house – the first half of Lion’s Blood reads much like a race and religion-swapped Louisiana plantation narrative, and that’s part of my problem: I don’t get much out of those these days. Also, in embracing such familiar tropes, it’s all a bit by the numbers once you get past the central twist.

I think I can see what Steven Barnes was trying to do, and points to him for trying. But the novelty wears thin quickly (not least because I don’t need any convincing that slavery was a terrible, hideous thing), as do the characters themselves. Halfway through, and the best developed characters are those who rarely appear (Nandi the Zulu princess and Lamiya the Empress’s niece) rather than principal characters – young master Kai, slave Aidan and sex slave Sophia.

SPOILER (mouse over to read)(no points for guessing she comes between our 2 male protagonists; worse, she essentially submits to an assault by Aidan because ’she wants it really because she’s so angry with Kai’. I have no words. No. Just no).

For me, it lacks the emotional depths of say a Guy Gavriel Kay alt history, and it feels under-researched (in retrospect, reading an alternate Islamic history straight after Infidel was probably setting it up to fail). While the world-building is very fine and internally consistent, the characters are not (decadent Kai suddenly becoming a Sufi, for example, makes no sense at all as any deliberation or conviction happens off-page so we don’t see it. This is clearly to set up conflict in the second half of the novel). Consequently the authorial hand feels pretty heavy.

I have read the Wikipedia summary of what I’m missing, and I’m disappointed to say it’s pretty much exactly as I called it, so I’m not going to read it. It’s okay, but it’s not for me. Those who enjoy plantation narratives and are more invested in American colonial history may get more out of it.