Steven Barnes’ Zulu Heart is a follow-up to 2002’s Lion’s Blood. It is also the final volume (to date) in Barnes’ Bilalistan alternate history.
Four years after the events of Lion’s Blood, Walid Kai’s long-delayed marriage to his Zulu fiancée, Nandi, is finally at hand. This could become complicated … and not just due to Kai’s conflicted relationship with Nandi’s Zulu nation. Kai is already married to Lamiya. Will Nandi and Lamiya will cooperate … or quarrel?1. As if that weren’t enough drama, Kai’s position as Walid, or leader, is going to pose even greater challenges.
The two great powers of Africa, Abyssinia and Egypt, are on the brink of war. As in the Old World, so in the New: if the two empires go to war, so too will their colonies and allies across the ocean, including Kai’s Bilalistan (geographically analogous to Old Dixie). Isolationism is not an option. Leadership could become tricky—but a canny man like Kai can see ways to exploit the situation for personal gain and for the good of his people.
Seeing an opportunity to retrieve a valuable cipher machine, Kai turns to his old friend and former slave, Aiden O’Dere. He asks Aiden to become an undercover agent, as a slave. The former slave is not enthusiastic about surrendering his hard-won freedom, but he is offered an irresistible reward: his sister Nessa. Years ago, both Aiden and Nessa were taken in a slave raid and sold off far from their native Ireland. Kai has tracked down Nessa. If Aiden is lucky, he can escape with an invaluable intelligence asset AND his long-lost sister.
However, Kai’s careful plans may be derailed by one of his ambitious rivals for leadership, a rival motivated purely by personal ambition. The rival hopes to cripple Kai by exploiting a weakness: Kai wants to trust Nandi, his second-wife-to-be, but he still has lingering worries about her true intentions. And Lamiya and her children are such a convenient, ready-made set of victims for an assassin who needs to frame innocent Zulu woman….
Just as in Lions Blood, the alternate history that is supposed to explain the current setting is unbelievable. It really doesn’t make much sense. Still, if we tossed every unbelievable alternate history series out the airlock, there would be few AH novels left to review. In this case, the current setting is convincing even if the backstory is bogus. We are quickly pulled into several concurrent, gripping plots. Will Kai’s new family arrangement work? Will his rival manage to oust him? Will Alden bring back crucial information as well as his sister? And what of Nandi? The rising enmity between the two great empires forms an ominous background to all this intrigue.
I first read this book back in 2003, when I reviewed it for the SFBC. I was primed to like Zulu Heart because I had just finished reading Turtledove’s Marching Through Peachtree, a race-flipped fantasy retelling of the American Civil War. Turtledove’s dismal book paralleled the Barnes novel in some ways—both books have whites enslaved by blacks—but I found Barnes’ take on race-flipping to be immeasurably superior to Turtledove’s. Unsubtle sometimes, but still superior.
I was also inclined to enjoy because, perhaps by chance, the subplot involving Aiden and Nessa mirrored a plot in Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers. I have no idea how popular Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel was in the US, or if Barnes ever read it, but you can pretty never go wrong by reminding me of one of my favourite books.
Because I read Lion’s Blood before I reread this book for a review, I am no longer the best judge of whether or not this novel works as a standalone. But back in 2003 (I kept my old SFBC reports) I thought that it did. There is lots of room for sequels, if Barnes wants to write them and if the market demands them … but there are no dangling plot ends that require closure.
I am unaware of any recent editions of Zulu Heart.
1: Sadly for lovers of drama, Nandi and Lamiya are both sensible, pragmatic women; they soon come to terms with each other and form a smoothly functioning household.