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Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

Blood-and-Iron-The-Book-of-the-Black-Earth--476514-1188293feb27c417d22e

This book forces us back to basics. As a social phenomenon, racism leads one race to treat one or more other races differently. Under normal circumstances, this difference is based on some easily identified feature such as skin colour. Whatever the feature, it’s perceived as making one race superior to the other(s). This perception of superiority is then used as a justification for the differential treatment. In practical terms, racism is also a measure of relative physical power because if the race(s) considered inferior resent(s) the difference in treatment, the individual victims may object. Self-evidently, if the race considering itself superior is able to enforce its will through the use of violence, we get into a self-reinforcing cycle which produces a stereotype of superiority and consolidates the prejudice and associated discrimination. The most obvious way in which this dominance/subservience is entrenched into local cultures is through the practice of slavery where the members of the inferior races are treated as property to be owned and, where relevant, inherited as a part of the land.

 

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2014) The Book of the Black Earth 1 is set on the same fantasy world as his previous series featuring Caim. This time, most of the relevant action takes place in a country called Akeshia which is a version of 1001 Arabian Nights overlapping Egypt to give us sword and sorcery with factional political infighting. The magic system depends on zoana which allows the manipulation of the traditional elements: earth, wind, fire and water, plus the void. All children in this part of the world are tested and those with the ability to manipulate one or more of the elements, get higher status and potential access to political power. Those with the highest abilities get to be rulers, whether in the overt political domain or in the religious cults which train their sorcerers from young to be blindly obedient to the “faith”. Of course everyone is really interested in secular power but, for now, there’s an uneasy balance between the secular rulers and the priests of the Sun Cult which has emerged the victor in the “godwars”.

Jon Sprunk

Jon Sprunk

 

We start off in a period of this world’s history not entirely dissimilar to our own with the “European” races setting off on another “Crusade” to suppress the inferior races. Horace Delarosa, our “hero”, joins one of the ships as a carpenter but, in a sorcerous storm, the ship is lost and he washes up on the shore of Akeshia. So here comes a man not speaking the language and having no idea of local cultural norms of behaviour. Not surprisingly, he’s immediately arrested and, although shown some kindness by local villagers, he’s soon going inland on a forced march. However, as an inherently “better” human being, he defends the weak and befriends the downtrodden. “Europeans” have nobility of spirit written into their DNA. They are also gentle and humble and awfully nice, even when provoked by the soldiers guarding the slaves. We then get into the substance of the book through the arrival of another sorcerous storm. Two adepts go out in front of the caravan to defend themselves and their property (the slaves) but their skills are not up to the task. At this point, our hero discovers he can just switch off the storm. Yes, our superior European can instinctively do what no other local can do even after a lifetime of training.

 

And here comes the big plus to this discovery. No-one who can use the zoana can be treated as a slave. So through this inherent ability, he goes from the bottom of the heap to a launching pad which could enable him to be king one day. Yes, you can’t keep a good “European” down. No matter where he ends up, he’s always superior and will rise to the top. A few pages later, he’s being introduced to Queen Byleth of Erugash, one of the ten city-states controlling Akeshia and, wowser, is she a looker! Yes, she takes one look at our hero and she wants his genes in her children. There’s just one problem. Her political state is parlous. She’s about to be married off to a puppet of the Sun Cult so unless our hero can pull a rabbit out of his hat (that’s a euphemism but, in this instance, not one referring to sexual activity), she’s going to lose her role as de jure leader and become a mere baby producer for the puppet king.

 

Into the mix, comes Alyra who’s a spy working undercover as a slave in the Queen’s household and Jirom, an ex-soldier and gladiator whom our hero met as a fellow slave. Naturally, Alyra is also taken with our hero and Jirom is gay which makes their relationship confusing and explains why, despite his best efforts, Jirom is kept away from our hero lest he be tempted to the dark side (or something). So with just a few words of encouragement, our hero is soon demonstrating powers not seen in more than two-hundred years. When Europeans are good at something, they are really, really good at it! It was never a fair contest really and, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, he’s the number 1 warrior to the Queen and all-round nice guy. So he fights a few good fights and, despite not knowing how he’s doing what he’s doing with this magic thing, he’s doing it so well, he’s winning all his fights. Better still, when the locals use their powers, they develop stigmata and bleed from their wounds, but our hero ends up as good looking as when he started (once he’s combed his hair, of course).

 

So there you have it. Our hero saves the Queen (several times), incinerates lots of enemies, dispatches various demons and other creatures from “beyond”, and generally shows these primitive savages how a gentleman from “Europe” behaves. This makes all the women swoon and most of the ruling elite hate his guts — jealousy is a terrible curse even when magic is real — yes, my curse is bigger than your curse! The political machinations are somewhat simplistic and the increasingly divergent narratives arcs featuring Jirom are not as well integrated as they might have been making the pacing uneven and, at times, distinctly leaden. Summing up, at almost every level, Blood and Iron is overtly racist and sexist — at some points by my standards, offensively so. This may not be a problem for some readers. If all you want to see is people fighting using various levels of magical skill, this is a “classic” fantasy novel and you’ll probably enjoy this. Anyone else should steer well clear.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

  1. March 13, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Having actually been accused of racism myself, I always wonder if such judgements might come from a reader looking at a Hero in a Strange Land story through the wrong lens. Authors playing with the Campbellian monomyth typically start with a hero generally familiar to the reader and in a familiar setting (therefor European or American or whatever), then remove him to the Land of Adventure, which is often foreign and therefor by necessity filled with foreigners after all. Usually, if the end result is the hero going native and marrying the exotic princess (ala John Carter of Mars), I dismiss any racist subtext as unintentional. However, since I have no interest in intricate magical duels and simplistic political skulduggery, I doubt I’ll even try Amazon’s free sample when it comes out.

    • March 13, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      In fact, reading this book was an experience comparable to time travel. Taking just one of two examples of life when I was a child, my parents gave me a gollywog as a toy and most of the books available to read were imperialist in spirit, showing brave white heroes uplifting the submissive locals and subduing the revolting natives. On the Vaudeville stage, and on television in the latter part of 1950s, blacked-up whites extracted humour by replicating the stereotypical behaviour of coloured races. In other words, I grew up in an age that was indelibly racist. It was the norm to discriminate in thought and deed. Looking at American literature of the same period including Edgar Rice Burroughs, the same set of attitudes is on display. Western societies in the Victorian period and the early part of the twentieth century were racist. It might have been “unintentional” but it was real. We’re supposed to be better than that now. Except the social message of racial equality does not seem to have reached some authors. Historical throwback books like this are the result.

      So yes, to some people I may be looking through the wrong lens. It’s a product of my age. I have watched the struggle for change in the levels of racism and sexism that run in Western societies. It’s ironic I should currently be living in a part of the world where racism and sexism are institutionalised. Perhaps observing life around me now makes me more sensitive. But unless people point out the racism, how can opinion shapers like authors be shamed into improving? Incidentally, having read your books, I don’t see the same problem.

      • March 13, 2014 at 2:41 pm

        Yes, well apparently a few readers took offense because The Ring (the “supervillains” who attempted to assassinate the US President in the tail end of Wearing the Cape) was an international coalition of Chinese, Muslim, and Mexican terrorists who objected to America’s interference in their nations’ affairs. This despite the fact that the Boss Villain of my first book–with a bodycount far higher than The Ring managed–was a purely homegrown time-traveling fascist.

        Regarding Burroughs, it is rather ironic; I grew up in one of the most homogenous societies in the US–small-town Utah (100% white and 90% Mormon). To me, foreign meant exotic and fascinating but in no way inferior, so I soaked up all the John Carter books and Carson of Venus books and didn’t detect a whiff of racism; I loved Barsoom and thought the Red Men and Green Men were AWESOME. Probably my first detailed story plots involved me as John Carter’s friend and sworn ally, Kantos Kan of Helium.

        Naive? Oh yeah; I didn’t even know about the Civil Rights Movement until I was forced to learn American history in school, and wasn’t exposed first-hand to recognizably racist attitudes until I left home. So you’re right, and I’m probably less sensitive to the memes and themes of bygone (and present) racism than I should be.

      • March 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm

        Did you see there’s a new survey following 12 Years a Slave winning the Oscar for Best Picture? Apparently only 15% of participants who identified themselves as Republican voters said they felt the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had made the right choice. If surveys are a true reflection of society, society is only changing very slowly when it comes to matters affecting race and sex.

        Take the question of The Ring as an example of the enduring problem. When I was growing up, Britain was sending troops to deal with terrorists acting in support of demands for independence in Kenya and Malaysia. After the rebellions had been suppressed, both countries were given independence, but on “our” terms and not as a result of “their” demands. The imperialists do not respond to demands from their colonies, but they can be magnanimous in victory — particularly when it’s so expensive to keep fighting all the terrorists. Of course changing the perspective shows all the freedom fighters bringing their imperial overlords to their knees and forcing them to surrender. In some quarters, the British still resent being kicked out. It tarnishes what they want to see as Britain’s reputation as “good masters”.

        One of the byproducts of American exceptionalism is the number of enemies that have been created in the countries where America has unilaterally intervened. But, according to many Americans, these countries are supposed to be grateful for American assistance. They are not supposed to take offence that their towns and cities have been invaded and their citizens killed. So when fighting in Vietnam, bombing Laos was acceptable. Current fighting in Afghanistan sees regular drone strikes in Pakistan. So far America has been lucky. The IRA bombing campaign in England was interesting to live through. Many official buildings are still on high alert to reduce the risk of future attacks. Britain has apologised to the Irish and many of the ex-colonies. This has reduced the tension but not eliminated it. Sadly, America sees no need to apologise to all the countries it may have offended. It continues to view itself as inherently entitled to act as it thinks fit. All other countries and the races they contain come second in its estimation. So it’s not surprising some of your readers would take offence that The Ring was made up of an ethnically and religiously diverse group fighting back against American militarism. And, of course, you as an author should not even suggest this is how lowly groups would behave. Your critics condemn you for failing to reinforce their racial stereotype of subservience to American superiority.

  2. March 14, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Your interpretation of my portrayal of The Ring is more in line with my original intentions; although I labelled The Ring a “supervillain” group, describing them reflectively as superhuman terrorists, I also made it clear that they were the blowback of American interventions. I did not analyze these military interventions to condemn or defend them (I did have deeper analysis in an earlier draft, but I took them out because they were jarring, tooth-grinding infodumps), and despite the media and government-applied label of “terrorist” to the group, the actual attack on Whittier Base was a guerrilla attack–while I am absolutely NOT drawing a moral equivalence, I would compare the attack to French resistance fighters targeting the German military and leadership during WWII.

    But here’s the humor of your assumption regarding some of my critics’ responses; you have entirely mistaken their criticism. To quote a few:

    “Ah the bad guy army made up of Islamic, Mexican, and Chinese villains. Against a White Catholic Socialite.”

    “It starts out OK, but then about halfway in its takes this weird ultra nationalist, ultra religious turn totally out of nowhere.”

    “–and how the biggest villains they face are Jihad superhumans?”

    And this takes us back to what I said about lenses: since I didn’t explicitly flesh out The Ring’s motives and methods in the way I did the Dark Anarchist’s (can you think of a more melodramatic name?), some readers read a deep vein of cultural racism into the book.

    I didn’t see 12 Years a Slave; as a card-carrying Master of History (it says so right on my diploma) I tend to skip “historical” movies because the anachronisms, errors, and rewriting of history spoils all enjoyment and I’ve been burned too many times to invest in a movie ticket (I’ll probably catch it on Netflix). I’ve heard it was very well done–so well done that even many Oscar-voters who hadn’t seen it voted for it.

    No joke.

    http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Two-Oscar-Voters-Admit-They-Didn-t-Watch-12-Years-Slave-Voted-It-Anyway-41981.html

    I’m not knocking the movie; I just prefer to get my readings from the actual period (I recommend Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Fin to anybody, but there is lots of good abolitionist literature from the time describing the institution of slavery as practiced in the American South in seriously sickening detail).

  3. March 14, 2014 at 1:33 am

    I saw the review still haven’t seen 300 yet, and you’d have to pay me to see either of them (see my avoidance of “historical” movies, above), so not sure about the racism of the movie. But I have had to laugh, seeing comments from critics claiming that, historically Persia was the “culturally enlightened” empire and the Greeks were the barbarians. Not that they don’t have a (small) point, but anyone who has read more than just an overview of classical civilizations knows that by modern standards they were all pretty horrific. Yes, Greek civilization contained the seeds of the modern world–but the emphasis should be on “seeds.”

    • March 14, 2014 at 1:49 am

      I’ve seen 300 and it’s worth watching just as a piece of cinema. As a piece of history it was not exactly the most accurate representation of the Battle of Thermopylae, but if you think of it as a piece of pop culture reproducing a graphic novel, it’s entertaining.

      Yes, Greek civilization contained the seeds of the modern world–but the emphasis should be on “seeds.”

      You spit seeds on the ground and later you’ve got sturdy plants or even trees you can climb to meet giant despair.

      • March 14, 2014 at 2:45 am

        Speaking of which, Into The Woods is playing at the Utah Shakespearean Festival this year. Now there’s a play you should review sometime (it’s available on video).

      • March 14, 2014 at 3:39 am

        I see there’s a movie version in production. If I’ve got time, I’ll have a look at the stage version — time’s a little tight with the editing job coming back online. I told him to go away and rewrite. Unfortunately, he’s now come back again.

      • March 14, 2014 at 3:52 am

        Yeah, writers are annoying that way.

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