Reviewed by Robert Runté
You might not be able to tell from the cover, but The New Empire is speculative fiction, a parallel world whose timeline diverged from ours in the 1400s. What if the great Chinese explorer, Zheng He, had sailed east to discover America, instead of west across the Indian Ocean to Africa? The real Zheng He's fleet of over 300 ships and 28,000 crew dwarfs Columbus' meagre expedition of 90 crew on three tiny ships--and Zheng He set sail 90 years before Columbus. The proposition is a wonderful thought experiment for any historian. In it. McBain works through the major implications to reveal that world 350 years later, in which the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] Confederacy, armed and horsed by the Chinese a hundred years before European incursions, dominates Turtle Island/North America.
McBain's universe is no utopian paradise, however. Slavery is still a thing (though the slaves are Chinese deportees rather than Africans); the continent was still depopulated with the identical diseases that wiped out 90% of the Indigenous population in our world (just introduced via China in this timeline, rather than from Europe); the Spanish are still trying to push up from Mexico; the English are still fighting to cross the Appalachians; and the big landowners have still developed a plantation mentality.
Into this world comes five-year-old Jiangxi, a princeling raised in the Forbidden City, purged by his royal brother and sold into anonymous slavery among the Amah Mutsun. Surviving the hellish voyage to the New World, Jiangxi is bought by Onas, a spiritual leader of the Kukus religion. The novel is the story of their evolving relationship and the social changes brought on by the distant wars against the would-be colonial powers.
McBain creates a persuasive narrative exploring the setting and the ways that limits, pushes, and ultimately shapes both Jiangix and Onas. The story is compelling for its examination of cultural, social, and moral issues—indeed, the timeless fundamentals of human nature—as the slow-burn of the plot lends a sense of inevitability to events. This is no simplistic fairy tale of good vs evil, of the young hero and his old jedi master righting wrongs and defeating the evil wizard/vizier. On the contrary, both characters change and grow in complexity as events unfold, and they are confronted with their own moral shortcomings. Both manage to disappoint the others' expectations, and the big moral and social issues remain largely unresolved.
McBain's thought experiment of Chinese influence on undefeated Indigenous cultures is painted in a mix of architecture, philosophies and trade. The Chinese tradition of suzerainty (trade and non-intervention), contrasts sharply with European mercantilism (where colonies exist only as resources for the colonial power) in our timeline. I confess to some initial doubts about McBain's depiction of slavery as mirroring that in our history, given that traditional Indigenous practice was usually more focused on adoption and absorption than the creation of a perpetual slave class. But of course, this is not our Haudenosaunee's timeline, and exposure to the Chinese desire to dump exiled criminals, rebels, and outcasts on the Confederacy as slaves could indeed have produced a plantation-style slavery over 350 years.
The tone and style of the novel reminded me somewhat of Matthew Hughes magnum opus, What the Wind Brings. Both are historical novels on the literary end of the spectrum, both are sympathetic portrayals of flawed individuals responding to the conflicting worldviews of the 'other', and both revolve around issues of slavery, colonialism, and leadership. I highly recommend them both.
The New Empire by Alison McBain is published by Woodhall Press.