had been close allies for about 2000 years, how would world history be different?

A few days ago [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith left a prompt to [livejournal.com profile] thesilentpoet:

In 97 AD, Chinese General Pan Chao sent an embassy to the Roman empire, but little came of it. Suppose China and Italy had united, how would that change things?

This poem was the result, outlining a whole timeline. If you know me you can imagine the rest, I wanted more and wanted to see what [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith herself would do with a few prompts related to this alternate-history universe, [livejournal.com profile] thesilentpoet agreed as well.
The result were The Treasures of Marco Polo based on a couple of items listed in an inventory after Marco's death he never spoke about; The Lost and Found Legion about the idea of the embassy and the identity of the ambassador and the , as yet unpublished The Tea Tempest.
I was reading about the real embassy sent by general Ban Chao and how in Chinese documents it is said that ambassador Gan Ying turned back because of the info he got from some Parthian sailors about the lenght of the remaining leg of his trip to Rome and the dangers involved. Fact is that Parthians and Scythians were the middlemen of the silk trade and wouldn't have been too happy if the two empires started dealing with each other directly.

I couldn't help but imagine a pair of Parthians trying the same stunt on a very different ambassador, [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith 's Cai Luoma, the result was:

Cai Luoma and the Parthians

They tried it on him, the two Parthian brothers.

The older spoke first, in sorrowful tones:

“This sea, o my friend, is so vast and large,

With terrible storms, and many hidden dangers;

It may take years  to cross it at all”.

Then spoke the younger, with honeyed words:

“ This we say to you  in token of friendship,

Your faraway lord, no matter how wise,

Could not have known  the dangers you face”.

Insisted the brothers, concern in their voices:

“Providing for many, your friends and retainers,

Will tax your resources, will leave you stranded,

Turn back while you can, we speak out of care”.


But in truth... )
Read The Treasures of Marco Polo a poem by [livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith based on my prompt about some objects Marco brought back from his travels and their possible history and significance.

The objects are real and documented, the poem is part of an alternate history series in which China and Italy have been closed allies for about 2000 years because they are two of the many things Marco never spoke or wrote about, so we are in the realm of what if...

No need to say that Marco has always been one of my heroes.
marina_bonomi: (book)
Is a very interesting fantasy/alternate history novel by a three-writer team, Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer.

I'm often wary of collaborations, but in this case as I was reading I kept forgetting that the book has more than one author, no mean feat, in my opinion.

I picked The Shadow of the Lion from the Baen Free Library, I was intrigued by the premise, a fantasy set in 16th century Venice, and I figured that, it being free, at worst I would just lose a couple of hours before deciding it wasn't for me (I'm past the phase in which I forced myself to finish each and every book I started).

In that couple of hours, or even less, I was hooked. The alternate history is intriguing (also 'alternate theology' if you wish, thanks to the conversion of Saint Hypatia), the characters are nuanced and three dimensional, there are as many intriguing and strong females as males, and it manages to completely sidestep one of my biggest turn-offs in fantasy (the 'big, bad, fanatic church' and 'poor, persecuted magic users/pagans' trope) here there is bad and good on both sides. I loved equally the dottor Marina (a family name here) the strega, and father Eneko Lopez, a Basque former soldier of venture turned priest who, I believe, is the fictional alter ego of Íñigo López Loiola

The plot is complex, many of the major players on the European checkerboard of the time are there (but for France, the rival of the Empire is different in this story), it may not be your cup of tea if you don't like politics in your fantasy but the politics is neatly balanced by the action, in my opinion, and neither feels overdone.

And, most of all, Venice feels real. That in the book is the city were I studied, with its pride, its history, its special mix of sea and island that sets it apart from any other city in Italy, the strong esprit de corps of the workers at the arsenal, the strenght and world-view of the canalers, the pomp and sense of duty of the best of the aristocracy... I could go on for hours. Venice is a character in the novel, and not a minor one.

This is not to say that the book is perfect, but my problems with it (if that's even the right word), are definitely minor.

I did a couple of double-takes reading of the Swiss guard of the Doge and of the Scaliger of Verona as an enemy of Venice in 1538 (in this world the Scaligers were thrown out of Verona in 1387 and Verona gave itself to Venice in 1405), but I think it likely that these aren't mistakes but points of divergence (note to writers of alternate history: please, please put a note on historical matters somewhere in your book spelling out what is intentionally different , this reader, for one, would be grateful) .

All through the narrative there are Italian words for flavor, I've no doubt they work fairly well for readers that don't know Italian, for me... the mis-spelled words were like a constant itch I could not scratch.
Giaccomo for Giacomo, Polestine for Polesine, Caesare for Cesare, Fruili for Friuli, Veneze for Veneziani, capi (a plural word) used also as a singular, in one instance slices of prosecco on a platter (prosecco is a wine, neither cheese nor salame) and why should Kat, a scion of one of the 'old houses' of Venice bear the definitely non-Venetian family name Montescue ?

They are all small, silly things, but an Italian beta-reader would have weeded them out, and I believe an already good book would have been made even better by it.

BTW, if any of my writer-friends on Live Journal needs an hand with Italian words or details, I'm happy to officially volunteer.
marina_bonomi: (book)
Every now and then, either on LiveJournal or one of the various blogs and sites about books I read, I find threads recommending books by POC authors or alternate history titles: Lion's Blood (Insh'Allah) is both.

i discovered Steven Barnes' works years ago, via his cooperation with Larry Niven, the Dream Park series (I don't know a single role-player who could resist the idea of a whole park devoted to live-action role-playing with the help of cutting-edge technology), so, having read very good thing about Lion's Blood, I went for it and wasn't disappointed.

Alternate history is the realm of well-reasoned 'what-ifs' and I'd offer Lion's Blood as an example of how it is done right (in this reader's opinion, of course). Barnes' world has multiple points of divergence from history as we know it: Socrates didn't die in Athens, but escaped to Egypt , Alexander didn't go to India but went also to Egypt and proclaimed himself Pharaoh, Chartage defeated and destroyed Rome, in consequence no Roman empire was born, Christianity remained a minoritarian religion, and Islam became the main world power in the West (without Rome we don't have either the Sacred Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire).
Later on, Abyssinian and Egyptian explorers colonize the New World, there is also a Norse colony (Vinland) and a Chinese one in the analog of California. The 'revised' world works like clockwork, perfectly logical I didn't have any 'wait, what?' moments of dissonance at the world building while I can count many chuckles at cameos of familiar figures (like Leonardo 'The mad Frank architect' who found patronage in Abyssinia and killed himself trying out a  flying contraption from the top of Khufu's pyramid).

The writing is very good, I found myself drawn in from the first page and remained fully engaged till the end (in fact I read the second half of the book in one sitting), I loved the pace too. Many contemporary novels seem to run full tilt from the beginning to the end, sometimes leaving me out of breath at the last page, with a vague recollection of the details but for the main plot. Lion's Blood has its share of action, but has also quieter, meditative spots where characters consider things, grapple with moral dilemmas, see their perspectives shift, always staying well clear from gratuitus 'navel gazing'.

Many readers of Lion's Blood specifically stress one main point: this is a world where slavery is common and accepted, and the masters are black and the slaves white. Well, yes and no: in the colonies in the New World the masters are by and at large Islamic, not necessarily black (the Zulus don't follow Islam and they are a power to be reckoned with but they are somewhat of an exception, and many of the main characters see them as incomprehensible), the slaves, though, are Western Europeans, those mentioned most often are from Ireland and Gaul (Sophia, though, is Greek and Aidan mention the existence of slaves in Ireland, so it's not an 'us against them' thing).
Some reviewers mention this turning of the tables as a moment of realization, a 'there but for the grace of God...' that made them think about the slavery issue in a different light. Honestly it didn't happen to me, I didn't relate to Aidan's tribulations differently than I did to Kunta Kinte's reading Roots  . This difference in reaction gave me pause, I thought about it for a while trying to understand the reason for it, then it dawned on me.

First of all, in European history slavery wasn't color-coded, it has never been. In olden times one could find oneself a slave for a lot of reasons, including debt, and we haven't the 'white/master, black/slave' automated pairing (if anything we have the 'black/ foreigner' coding instead), moreover, for someone living on the Northern shores of the Mediterranean sea, till not so long ago, the possibility of finding oneself bid upon in the slave market of Tangiers, Tripoli, Algiers or Tunis wasn't alternate history or a flight of fancy, it was a very real possibility implicit in every sea travel. In the history of almost every seaside village and town in Central and Southern Italy there are records of Turkish/Berber/Arab raids, with people taken away never to be seen again; people who left for a sea voyage and disappeared, their ship attacked by Barbary pirates; people bought back from the auction blocs by one of the religious orders who devoted themselves to the freeing of slaves like the Order of our Lady of Mercy  (the last time was in 1798, in Tunis the Mercedarians freed 830 slaves who had been taken prisoner in the raiding of Carloforte, in Sardinia). One of the lake towns a few kilometers  from where I live, Limone sul Garda (known internationally for the so-called longevity protein) was founded by people coming inland to escape Saracen raids.

I found this an interesting facet of cultural and world-view differences between the US and Southern Europe, one of the many things that often aren't taken into account when we discuss things across the Atlantic in 'the Age of Globalization'.

Back to the point: if you are looking for well written, engaging alternate history that will linger after you have finished the book and make you think Lion's Blood is highly recommended.

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March 2013

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