Woodhall Press (2022)
Reviewed for Reader Views by Lee Barckmann (11/2022)
The New Empire is a highly imaginative and well researched alternative history, set in Northern California in the mid-1700s, that postulates that the Chinese beat Europe to the punch during the 15th century’s Age of Discovery. In the process, the Chinese set up trading relations with the Native Americans on the west coast, empowering them with wealth, technology and knowledge of the world. We learn early in the story the outlines of this alternative history and discover that the main character is a highborn Chinese boy prince from Beijing, Jiangxi, who has been sold into slavery to the native Americans by his older, illegitimate brother.
Jiangxi has been sold to a mysterious powerful shaman-like Native America, a leader among the confederacy of tribes, somewhere between the South San Francisco bay and Monterey California. How you learn all of this is skillfully and vaguely hinted at, and has to be pieced together from interesting and well laid clues. You will have heard of wars among the Dutch, English and French far to the east and that the main rivals of the Chinese for dominance are the Spanish, who are slowly encroaching from the south.
Onas is Jiangxi’s owner, and is a spiritual leader of his tribe. Justifying Jiangxi’s situation, Onas says, “With slaves to farm, the men are free to fight, while women and the Elders govern and trade. Take away one part of the balance, and each part will weaken and fall. In your homeland you would have been executed. At least here you are alive.”
The beginning of the book set this reviewer’s expectations up for an exciting game of alt-history Risk, with familiar cultures in unfamiliar roles. But as the novel unfolds, this does not happen. This is a story about slavery, the limits of loyalty and to a degree, agricultural economics, told by exploring the relationship between Jiangxi and Onas. As Jiangxi grows older he realizes he will never return to China to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his. While Onas, his owner, is benevolent, there are limits to what he can or will do to improve the lives of his slaves, and by extension all of the slaves in the Tribal Confederation. Jiangxi, who becomes Onas’ apprentice, dedicates his life to freeing himself, and eventually freeing all of his fellow slaves, most of them Chinese who had been sold to the Native Americans over the last several hundred years.
Much of the book depicts Onas and Jiangxi’s negotiations about emancipation and the sometimes violent opposition to any changes by the neighboring overseers and owners. The story sometimes seems slow and arduous, with occasional outbursts of violence. But if we think about the long struggle in US history about slavery, we know this is how it must be, in order to realistically show changes in such “peculiar institutions”. The story seldom leaves the original setting, and like Jiangxi himself, I sometimes wanted to see more. There was a war against the Spanish going on in the south, and sometimes I wanted to see how it played out, with the ‘alt-history’ tactics and weaponry on display. But I suppose that is just the little boy in me.
The New Empire is about what slavery does to a person, how it affects their spirit. It tells of the long, incremental, frustrating fight to end slavery. This fight plays out in the hearts and minds of men and women, and that struggle is really much more profound than battle scenes.
The novel ends as it has to, and we are left with all the historical possibilities the story evokes. In real history, we know the Chinese were on the verge of exploring and probably conquering the world the way sea-faring Europe would eventually do. If the Ming Emperor in the mid-1400s had had a different attitude toward the explorer Zheng He, who did travel the world in a fleet of giant Junks, and did explore the west coast of the Americas, and did travel around the African Horn, all of this could have happened. The story, while not ignoring man’s seeming innate greed and cruelty, does point to a different way North America could have been settled, and who knows how that could have turned out? Maybe at least we would have had a better appreciation of nature.
But alas, Zheng He returned to an uninterested Chinese bureaucracy who saw no value in such pursuits and had his fleet of giant Junks burned and most of the records of his journeys destroyed or hidden.