Fire. Blood. His brother's hand smashing his face to the ground. These are Jiangxi's final memories of Beijing from 1751. In the alternate history novel The New Empire, a bloody coup imprisons the emperor's youngest son in the bowels of a cargo ship, headed to a much different America than we've read about in history books. When Jiangxi arrives in the distant city of Wacharon, a trading hub for a powerful tribal confederacy, he is sold upon his arrival. As he begins to learn about the influential man who bought him, he's caught between the two worlds of his past and present, forced to choose between following the law of the land or striking out on his own to find a new and bold path to freedom. But Jiangxi's journey of self-discovery has a steep price. The choices he makes will change not only the course of his own life, but also the future of the two most powerful nations in the world.
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Alison McBain (1979-not dead yet) was born in Canada, raised in California, and arrived in Canada with a few detours along the way. She has over two hundred poems and short stories published in magazines and anthologies such as Flash Fiction Online, On Spec, and Litro. Her debut and award-winning novel is The Rose Queen: Book 1 of the Rose Trilogy, and was shortly followed by a collection of her short fantasy fiction called Enchantress of Books. When not obsessing over her plan of survival for a zombie apocalypse, she practices origami meditation and draws all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. In her spare time, she is one of the editors at Scribes*MICRO*Fiction (which publishes flash stories & poems and is always open for submissions). You can chat with her at @AlisonMcBain or read her blog at www.alisonmcbain.com.
All to market,” his brother announced to the room. The loud voice wobbled in Jiangxi’s ears, which seemed as broken as the rest of him. His vision faded, and he blinked and attempted to breathe. The blow had had enough force to stop a man, let alone a child. His brother’s face loomed over him again, close enough to see hairs sprouting like straw from nose, ears, and brows. The odor of his brother this close was unpleasant, strong with musk.
“And you, little prince,” his brother grinned. “The first wife’s favorite. Remember me in the time to come, and how I spared your life.”
Jiangxi was just a child when he was given a lesson in hatred. Ripped from his home by his vengeful and power-crazed brother, Jiangxi is sold into slavery. By the time the slave ship had docked, Jiangxi's young heart and body had been thoroughly broken. Everything around him was unfamiliar - the faces, the land. All he wanted to do was to go home. Instead, he was bought by a religious leader, an old man who went by the name of Onas.
Weak with hunger, Jiangxi wanted to lie down and die, but Onas had other ideas, for he had seen a vision of a boy, and that boy was Jiangxi.
From the rich palace of the Chinese Emperor to the desperate world of slavery, The New Empire by Alison McBain is the heartrending story of a young boy who dreams of liberating his people and going home to Beijing.
This novel is an alternative history of the founding of the Confederacy (United States of America) and is set in what we now know as California. Instead of European settlers arriving on the shore, the native tribes established their own bordered country, with their most notable outside influence coming from China. Throughout this novel, there are indications of a rumbling war with the Europeans, yet the tribes remain confident in their ability to stand firm. I thought this was an interesting idea for a novel, it turns history on its head! Was it believable, yes, I think it was. I thought the author has depicted a world that comes across with a strong sense of realism.
This story's well-paced narrative is told from Jiangxi's point of view. I found the writing to be quite poetic and the sensory language was very fitting for the author’s target audience. It is certainly a captivating story. There were a few issues with the formatting of the copy I had – with gaps between letters in a word, which was quite frustrating. The publisher should address this issue immediately as it distracts from the story unnecessarily.
He would find a way to free the slaves. All of them, not just himself. He would find a way, some way—any way he could—to lead his people to freedom.
Jiangxi was a character that evoked my sympathy. Jiangxi finds it difficult to comprehend what is happening to him (he is only six when his brother stages a successful coup). On the slave ship, his spirit is shattered, and he grapples to comprehend his surroundings. Later in the novel, there is a heartbreaking moment when his master tells him to go and play for a couple of hours and yet, he has forgotten how to because of the horrors he has endured and witnessed. But, even as a child his heart overflows with sympathy for his people and he risks so much to help them escape a life of hardship, torture, disease and death.
Many characters in the novel experience a sense of dislocation which I thought was really thought provoking. Onas, a religious leader and slave owner, is of mixed Amah Mutsun and Haudenosaunee heritage which means he has to walk two different paths, although his status as a religious leader helps him overcome many issues. Being sold into slavery at such a young age, Jiangxi is geographically displaced from his homeland. As he grows older, he feels an increasing sense of estrangement from both the cultures he was born into and the one he's now expected to serve. Even though he always tries to help his people in any way possible, he also finds it difficult to establish relationships with others in his position, and when he does the outcome is often dire. The differential treatment of Jiangxi by Onas and the revelation of Onas's long-term plan cause Jiangxi to experience confusion about his identity and social status.
Due to his childhood experiences, Jiangxi is afraid to share his true identity with anyone, he is, after all, a prince. Onas, naturally, is suspicious, particularly after discovering that Jiangxi received a formal education. Onas' reason for singling out the young boy and treating him differently from the other slaves is not immediately evident. However, as the story unfolds, Onas' true motive becomes clear. Onas was a character that presented a challenge for me - he owns slaves, but he doesn’t have an awful lot to do with them, and he does not concern himself with their welfare. His simple way of living makes him unaware of its implications for his slaves. He is not a cruel man in nature, he is at times very wise, but he is responsible for truly hideous deeds in which children are abused and men and women are worked to death. As the plot develops, he becomes aware of his shortcomings but comprehends that matters are not as straightforward as Jiangxi thinks. Onas understands the politics of his culture and acknowledges that progress takes time and that the resistance to change from his neighbours (who are also slave owners) would be immense. He manages to regain some redemption at the conclusion of the novel, but he is still an unlikable character.
Why me? he thought. Why would Onas suddenly trust him and bring him here? What was the point? He wasn’t trustworthy. He hated all his master stood for and believed. So why was he here?
His hatred had fractured, though, and become complicated. He closed his mind to the riotous mess of his emotions. His true purpose needed no confusion added to it.
Onas does try to provide a future for Jiangxi - he does seem to genuinely care about him, although his punishments are questionable. Despite his intellect, Jiangxi tends to act emotionally and makes rash decisions. From the very beginning, his destiny is predetermined because he can't just watch the atrocities happening around him and do nothing to help. He possesses quick wit and intelligence, and endeavours to perceive the broader perspective, but he has not the patience to wait for things to change - he is the change and he will bring it about no matter what the consequence.
The New Empire by Alison McBain is a novel that certainly intrigued me. Even though it is an alternative history it reads very much like historical fiction. The characters come across as very real in the telling and the story is gripping. If you love alternative historical fiction then I think you will enjoy this book immensely.
“The New Empire” by Alison McBain receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company
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