Barnes’ alternate history explores the evolution of slavery and racial formations in a world where the West never rose to prominence. The New World is in the process of being conquered by various African empires, and both women and enslaved whites are starting to buck up for independence. This is a very cool context — there’re women scientists hiding the extent of their work, a rising anti-slavery movement, and the equivalent of an Underground Railroad managed by Jews in an awesome head-nod to Jewish-black alliances during the Civil Rights Movement. Still, color me unimpressed. Barnes’ text made me think of one of the comments Tayari Jones often makes during her writing seminars… sometimes you’ve got to let your babies go on the bus alone.
Our two main guys are Kai, an incredibly wealthy Muslim lordling, and Aidan, a “wild ghost” (a white man breed in freedom and enslaved in his youth), grow up to be BFF. Because Kai is the youngest boy in his family he’s got a lot of privilege, little responsibility, and few friends. Kai and Aidan love each other dearly… but Aidan can never forget that Kai is free and Aidan is not.
This would be an intriguing alternate history if Barnes was able to introduce complicated themes and then really stick them out. The thing is, he’d have to let his babies get on the bus alone to do that. For example, Aidan and Sophia, Kai’s tragic mulatta lover, eventually join a colony of free whites. Like many of the women, Sophia’s been raped multiple times by her owner, and there were a few moments of tension where Aidan was afraid she’d give birth to a mixed race baby. Except, dude, Sophia IS mixed race, so any baby she has is going to be a bit brown. Can we, like, return to that? It’s totally important when describing Sophia as a sexual being that you know she’s all cafe au lait, but in terms of how the other free whites respond to her? Yeah, no, there’s nothing. Instead, our two main guys go off to have adventures. There IS a great scene at the end of Lion’s Blood where Donough, Aidan’s friend from childhood, claims his wife’s son as his own, even though the baby’s brown skin is evidence of its real parentage. Thing is, we never ever pick up on that in text again. We just kinda forget that in this colony of free whites, there ought to be at least a few mixed-race folks running around, whose faces and bodies would be physical reminders of these people’s recent pasts. This seems like something that’d cause a few community rumbles, since one of the reasons Aidan coaxes the other free whites to do military training is to defend their women against the ravages of the blacks.*
In text, race is an ultimately stable category; even though there are characters of mixed ancestry, this is only brought by characters who are already coded as being unsympathetic. Part of this is because Barnes is building off the idea that racial norms are enforced by class/privilege standards… so you’re black if you’re free, and you’re white if you’re not. In a disheartening reminder of the “real world,” coloring’s only really brought up when thinking about women as commodities, as bodies for consumption. So for Kai, he and Aidan mess around with white slave girls when they’re teens (and again, there are no brown slaves? In this world where white slavery’s been going on for generations?), they both eventually graduate to the pleasures of Sophia the beigey beige beige, and then Kai goes on to Lamiya, who’s coffee colored, and Nandi, who is the darkest/ purest/bestest woman he’s been with. There’s a treacherous female char who’s half-Persian, Allahbas, but again, we have little info on how her mixed race background affects her social standing. While blackness is the beauty norm, which is delightedly refreshing, the fact that nobody’s thought of words for all the tan kids that must be running around weirds me out.
Sometimes you’ve got to let your babies ride the bus alone… you have to put them in situations where they grow up a little, where they face things that you, as their author-parent, would rather protect them from. So, let Sophia have a brown baby… make the series about more than Kai and Aidan’s crazy adventures in this lovely, lush world… because really, right now? Barnes’ series is fun, but it’s not striking any new ground.
*some things never change, amirite?