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An Alternate World in the Balance: Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes
Reviewed by J.G. Stinson

Zulu Heart cover Readers introduced to the vividly drawn and often painfully real alternate, non-American history of Lion's Blood can return to it in this sequel, where the lives of Kai ibn Rashid and Aidan O'Dere suffer a heavy dose of political skullduggery.

In Barnes's history, the Europeans never colonized the continent to the west. Its native peoples still rule themselves (particularly the Aztecs), and the rulers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Zulu nation in Africa sent colonizers—and European slaves—to the New World. Christianity is a cult religion, a pharaoh still rules Egypt, Rome never achieved imperial power, and two plagues in Europe (210 and 599 AD, respectively, in the Christian calendar) decimated any other European notions of conquest.

As the youngest Wakil (regional ruler in Bilalistan, an Egyptian colony), Kai takes his obligations seriously, but would rather spend time with his family. Aidan's group of free Europeans is being pilfered by some Bilalians who don't believe in freedom for slaves, and are seeking to increase their own supply. Of course, this is something Aidan and his townspeople can't stand. Kai, meanwhile, is opposed to his Pharaoh's planned war against the Ethiopian Empress. Despite their efforts to find peaceful solutions to these conflicts, Kai and Aidan are caught up by the tide of events.

Kai needs information, and the only person perfectly trained for gathering it is Aidan. But there's a catch: Aidan must willingly become a slave again. His reward will be the chance to rescue his sister Nessa, whom he hasn't seen since they were children. I had two major questions to answer after reading the dust-jacket copy: 1) How likely is it that a person would accept this request to return to such a hellish existence? and 2) Does Barnes provide a convincing set-up for this maelstrom? My answers: not very, but yes. Aidan's solemn oath to his mother is reason enough for Aidan to accept the task, but he's also driven by guilt that he hasn't tried harder to find Nessa.

Matters at Kai's home aren't peaceful, either. He takes another wife, a Zulu princess whose father wants to use her as a political tool against Kai. Aidan leaves his wife Sophia behind, but faces a moral dilemma when called into the personal chambers of a Caliph's wife. Even Kai's mentor, the warrior-sage Babatunde, has his wits tested. Barnes doesn't leave any of his characters alone for long, and this makes for a page-turning read.

One of the best scenes in this novel is the naval battle, which Barnes notes was modeled on a real one, the sinking of the Monitor. The biggest problem I had with the story was Aidan's nearly dumbstruck response to the Calipha's physical attributes—too slackjawed for believability, to me, but others may have different reactions.

Zulu Heart has less emphasis on the religious and mystical training Kai received from Babatunde as a younger man, but it hasn't disappeared. Kai is at a point in life where he has to deal with politics both inside and outside his family circle, and this novel shows him applying his spiritual training to those aspects of his life in a more practical manner. He prefers peace and compromise, but doesn't hesitate to fight when necessary. Both Kai and Aidan make difficult choices, as they did in Lion's Blood, and it's to Barnes's credit that they are still very believable characters.

Will there be a third volume? Barnes's afterword leaves the door open for another novel set in this world, and if he can maintain the quality of the first book in a third story, it'll be worth another visit.

The Trees Are Not Your Friends: The Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
Reviewed by J.G. Stinson

The Darkest Part of the Woods cover It's difficult to describe what one means by "disturbed" when talking about the overall atmosphere of a book; often, one can only give a list of the things that cause the feeling. In the case of The Darkest Part of the Woods, though, "disturbed" is definitely the right word—everything about this book is disturbing. The cover is a tangle of sticks, vines and leaves, with insects roaming through it, doing their insect business; but it also looks like a human face. . . a very nasty human face. The story itself is also tangled, interwoven with elements one would rather spy in peripheral vision than face head-on, despite their all-too-human qualities, and it all looks and feels chillingly familiar—like one's own face.

The characters in Campbell's tale are also disturbed, each in their own way. Heather Price manages to hold her family together with love and watchfulness while working at a university library. Her disturbances are exterior ones—her father is in a home for the mentally unstable called the Arbour, her adult son doesn't seem to have found a vocation in life, her ex-husband is just there, her mother's artistic inspirations seem to be weakening. Then her sister shows up unannounced at the library one day, and she's pregnant and not telling the father's name. The wheels within wheels begin to turn for Heather and her family, leading to a forest named Goodmanswood—a haunted wood carrying a malevolence that has infected every tree within its boundaries.

In the 1960s, Dr. Lennox Price (Heather's father) wrote and published a book called The Mechanics of Delusion which included a history of popular delusions. Part of his research on delusions involved an investigation into Goodmanswood's history of causing folk to do strange things. Something organic within the wood was causing these delusions, he concluded. But perhaps Dr. Price delved too deeply into Goodmanswood's secrets, and woke something that won't easily go back to sleep. Did he end up in the Arbour because he, too, was deluded? Or did Goodmanswood actually cause all those disturbances he studied?

Once Heather's sister comes to visit, local children report seeing "the sticky man" near the wood, a man appearing to be made of sticks who offers a honeyed substance as an enticement. This is where the darkness of Campbell's story intensifies, subtly, and continues to do so, one event at a time, until the final scenes.

That kind of description does little to convey the richness of detail, the density of meaning with which Campbell imbues his prose. Like the titular woods, he reaches out to the reader with tendrils of words that do odd things to one's perceptions. The experience of reading The Darkest Part of the Woods is like seeing something creepy go skittering across the floor, almost unseen, or the "what was that?" reaction to a figure swiftly flitting between shadows. It gave me the same reaction I've had from walking near a wooded area after dark, whether in my own neighborhood or elsewhere: the simultaneous thrill and fear, that frisson, tells me the story is working.

Campbell has won more than twenty awards (World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and others) for his horror fiction, and it's not difficult to see why. Calling him a master of his craft would not be an exaggeration.

Bad Moonshine: The Harvest by Scott Nicholson
Reviewed by J.G. Stinson

The Harvest cover In horror literature, one may discern two vaguely defined camps of writers, and their associated readers. The Frisson Camp prefers its written scares to tiptoe up the spine with a tingly tread, giving peeks into a world impinging on consensus reality but hiding the full view of that other world's denizens. Campers will read a well-told, atmospheric vignette with the same relish they would a densely realized, stately novel. They like to have a little sex of the hidden variety in their reading material, or a lot of very elegant sex.

The Blood-Bath Brigade wants the in-your-face gross-out with a ripping good story every time (like a good horror movie). The characters who have sex in horror movies usually die, so the Brigade likes plenty of sex, too—and it doesn't have to be pretty.

Two very different attitudes, then, to that realm where we go when real life sucks in a scary way. Some folks straddle both groups, tending toward one or the other with mood (or life) changes. Scott Nicholson has shown, very early in his career, that he can work well in either mode.

The Harvest definitely owes much to the film legend "The Blob" in style and overall feel, more than in its details. Its central horror is an alien which crashes into the Southern Appalachian mountains, and proceeds to set to, with Earth as its smorgasbord. It is intelligent, and it is starving. It can manipulate behavior with telepathy and chemical coaxing, overwhelming human resistance.

Tamara Leon (college psychology professor, wife, and mom with a private history of precognition) is the first to encounter the alien, though she doesn't recognize it as alien at the time. Her "Gloomies" are her description of voices and feelings she gets before very bad things happen, and her radio DJ husband doesn't want to know about them. But because of the Gloomies, Tamara becomes the lynchpin in the human effort to destroy the alien.

Local moonshine purveyor Don Oscar Moody gets a taste of alien likker before anyone else, and begins the chain of alien life by transforming his wife as he is transformed. Nicholson peoples this story with a variety of well-rounded characters, all recognizable at first glance, but there are more than six of them, which makes keeping track of them difficult at times.

The humans have to win, of course, and Nicholson doesn't disappoint. If the villain is known at the beginning and the end is fairly easy to guess, what's the point of reading the book? The point is how Nicholson brings his characters and setting alive, the same as with a book in any other genre. Southern Appalachia is vibrant in Nicholson's hands, and its people are tough individuals who remember that they have to work together when the crunch comes, despite their differences. The Harvest reminds us that this is an important trait in human communities, whether the crunch is an alien invasion or a flood. Its ending is simplistic, but that's also in keeping with its "Blob" ancestry.

Though it's more in Blood-Bath Brigade territory, The Harvest will probably please most those who sample from both styles of horror. Give it a whirl, regardless. You may never look at a plant the same way again.

Excuse Me, Your Scenery Is Showing: Gunpowder Empire (Crosstime Traffic: Book One) by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by J.G. Stinson

Gunpowder Empire cover From a well-known name in alternate-history novels comes a Young Adult novel about two SoCal teens whose parents work for Crosstime Traffic, and their expeditions to alternate Earths. A typical trip takes them to a Roman Empire which never "fell." While there, they trade relatively innocuous items from their home-world for fresh produce and other things they can't get at home. Sounds like an interesting set-up, right?

That old reader's bugaboo, suspension of disbelief, comes crashing down when Jeremy Salter's history teacher explains, "By the time we reached the 2040s, our oil reserves really did start running dry, the way people had said they would for years. Nobody knew what to do. Many feared that civilization would collapse. . ."

Now, it's possible that this could happen, and perhaps using other worlds as new trading partners was the fastest and easiest solution to a global energy crisis. But no alternatives to petroleum (several of which are fast approaching commercial viability) are even mentioned; there should be a believable reason for their absence. The novel's set-up gives the impression that its target readers know nothing about non-oil-based energy technologies, an insult to the many middle-school students who study these alternatives every year.

Furthermore, after the third repetition of Jeremy's thoughts on how lucky his family was to be from a more technologically advanced world (and there were more than three instances), disgust crept in. The first time, it could be chalked up to the character's colonialist attitude—perfectly in place, given his parents' business. But subsequent iterations give the impression of authorial smugness—talking through the character in an overly obvious manner—or editorial laziness and/or contempt for young readers, in not deleting the repetitions. That lack of respect can be the kiss of death for a book aimed at readers in the 10-14 range. (It doesn't go over so well with adults, either.)

Despite these glaring sins, the characters of Jeremy and Amanda were drawn realistically enough that I kept reading anyway. I wanted to find out if the book would offer the obvious (and too easy) way out of the "our machine's broken so we can't escape the war which is rapidly approaching" plot point. Disappointed is too mild a word to describe my reaction.

There's a chance that this book was written this way to act as a foil for later books in the intended series; if that's the case, then I'd back off only a little by saying this should have been a little clearer in the first book. There are hints that Crosstime Traffic isn't unanimously supported by those on the Salters' home world, but they're only hints. There's clever, and there's too clever, and the latter tends to make readers throw books at walls.

Doubtless the HT lovers out there will dismiss this review. That's their right. It's also my right to say that I thought the book wasn't as well thought through as it should have been, that taking the easy way out in a juvenile novel insults the young people who are supposed to be reading it, and that the characters deserved better treatment.

J.G. Stinson is a freelance writer/editor. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Tangent Online, SpecFicMe!, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Speculations. She has also contributed an article to The Cherryh Odyssey, due out later this year from Wildside Press.
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