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“This was afterwards and he alone survived to witness it.”

 

The Exile of Zanzibar is a book so totally itself that reading it feels like a once in a lifetime experience. This is one of the highest compliments I can give an artist of any kind. For a story to feel worthwhile to me, it has to, on a very basic level, feel as though no one else could have written it. This aspect of a work has become even more essential to my appreciation of art since the explosion of AI sludge that aims at actualizing the idea that novels (and art of any kind) can simply be churned out with no human thought or heart behind them. The particularity of a story is what lends a work its beauty, its affective capacity, and its resonance. The Exile of Zanzibar has each of these in abundance, and scenes that I read months ago still linger, loiter, and even fester, in my mind’s eye. For a work to have impact beyond the initial reading of the thing itself suggests the power of that work, as well as the power of art in general.

At once an epic fantasy with a deeply drawn and fully realized world, and an exploration through symbol and imagery of what it means to exist as a human being in an often unfathomable world, The Exile of Zanzibar will please fantasy fans looking for something daringly original that does for epic and high fantasy what China Miéville has for Urban Fantasy. Here you’ll find fantasy exploded and restitched, reclaiming those elements of the fantastic that literary scholar Tzvetan Todorov and his inheritors associate with everything but epic fantasy.

Maidman combines a numinous and often haunting atmosphere with a deft down-to-earthness that has at its heart questions about our relationships to one another and the cultures within which we live and struggle. While you’ll find no shortage of political intrigue, strange and exciting new gods and worlds, as well as magical rituals and locations, what sets Zanzibar apart is how it uses these setpieces to comment on matters grounded in real-world concerns.

“One by one the tenmen fell, and the soil swole with blood.”

A multi-POV epic that combines elements of epic fantasy with very soft sci-fi (I’d honestly call it sci-fi through a fantastic lens), The Exile of Zanzibar opens as Claire, a young woman on the cusp of completing her doctoral thesis, is accidentally transported to the ancient past that is the subject of her study. Claire is no twenty-first-century scholar, however, but comes from a yet more distant future that may or may not be our own. Received as a god by the two warring kings who witness her arrival, Claire is thrust into a position of authority within the ancient cities of Florence and Genonva. In Florence, where the majority of Zanzibar takes place, she becomes both a player and a pawn in the struggle for power inside the city walls. Alongside Claire’s quest to maintain peace within (and without) Florence while finding a way home, we also follow a young soldier named Marcus, a conniving priest named Reburrus, and the king of the Florentines himself. Additional characters lend one-off POVs to the narrative, and the story is peppered with memorable side characters and fables that enrich the world Maidman has built. Rather than overcomplicating the story, these textured asides make a mosaic of the novel, giving it both a sense of dense history and drawing comparison with the layered feel of novels that draw on the imagery and history of real-world classical literature to communicate theme. The novel is also lavishly illustrated by Maidman himself.

“She took a step toward that understanding only infants and adults have, that things which look different are often the same.”

One of the aspects of Zanzibar that is certain to stand out immediately to readers is that it takes real-world names (such as Florence, Zanzibar, Cleon, and Pindar) and applies them to an alternative setting. I was tempted at first to read this as defamiliarization, but the effect is almost the opposite, since the use of familiar Classical terms and names instead lends the world of the novel a sense of the atmosphere one would expect from a historical swords-and-sandals novel or a genuine history of Rome and Italy. While this does open the potential for confusion, for me it created this wonderful sense of being able to revisit a world I thought I knew but that had turned out to be startlingly different. In Zanzibar I could learn Italian and Roman history for the first time, anew. The use of familiar names and terms also grounds Maidman’s choice of which historical details to include or ruminate on. Every aspect of Florence feels considered and deliberate–so much so that it made me self-conscious about what by comparison is some very shallow worldbuilding on my part. Each aspect of daily life feels fully thought-out and understood, from palace architecture to the mechanisms used in the grinding of grain. You could easily believe Maidman’s Florence was real and out there and that like Claire you could somehow plummet into it.

 

“Each city seems to me a world with its own heart, beating, and every limb alive.”

For me, the characters I loved most were frequently the secondary point-of-views woven into the main story: the folkloric fool-hero, Tacamo; Temet whose storyline is intertwined with one of the great mysteries of the novel; the adorable prince, Bitsy Boots (a play on Caligula’s name, though fortunately that’s all the character inherits); and the stalwart but embittered Thersites. Maidman’s command of character comes through most sharply for me through these chapters, where often his prose drops words of wisdom like a statue of the Madonna drops tears. There’s an earthiness and a realism to the plights of these characters and each of them adds something deep and true to the story. It wasA haggard man looks out at the audience while flames bordered by stone illuminate the area behind him. The illustration is greyscale and was made by Daniel Maidman for his novel, The Exile of Zanzibar. often in these chapters where Maidman moved me the most as a reader. Although I find Claire fascinating, her semi-divinity makes her less approachable than some of the rest of the cast–one admires from afar, almost the same way that the denizens of Florence and Genova admire her. Through Temet and Thersites, in contrast, the tragedy of the everyday is made glisteningly real. This tension between Claire the god and the ordinary people she encounters, is one of the sets of relations that fascinated me most, not least because as I read I found myself reflecting on the historian’s relationship to their subject of study through Claire’s realizations about the Florentines.

When we’re first introduced to Claire, there’s a sense of her as set apart. She doesn’t wish ill upon Florence or Genova, but there remains a distance as though her modernity can’t quite reconcile with the pastness of those she’s been thrust into contact with. Her relationship to history has been one of dry academic distance and inquiry, and suddenly she’s met with the reality of her subject as living and breathing. Gradually, as the story unfolds, Claire becomes more deeply immersed and entangled with Florence, and it’s through her interactions with some of thA greyscale pencil illustration by Daniel Maidman, from his novel, The Exile of Zanzibar. In the image, a woman mounts an impossible staircase inside a dark tower. In the foreground, a helmeted skeleton lies atop a platform, its hand gripping a stone pillar.e characters listed above that I felt this shift expressed most powerfully. Claire comes to be part of Florence, or rather, it becomes part of her. As a historian myself, I couldn’t help but read this process from the vantage of someone who’s always been invested in the fraught relationship between the historian and their subject. Above, I mentioned a dry academic distance, yet in my experience most historians feel a passion and kinship for the worlds and people(s) we study. It reminded me of something one of my undergraduate professors once told us in class (and which I relentlessly now repeat to my own students), that whatever may be (or seem) different to us about past lives, the one constant we can depend on is that just like us, historical people loved their children. The reason this idea speaks to me is that suggests a degree of care and empathy ought to be extended to those long gone. This same feeling, I think, is what Claire comes to experience as she grows closer with those around her. The fact that, should she succeed in her goal of returning to her world, the people she has met will no longer exist (in some sense), gives Zanzibar a tragic backdrop that never quite vanishes.

 

“He would have looked mischevious if he had been their friend, but he was not. So he looked menacing.”

One of the novel’s strengths lies in its empathy for its characters. Even some of the most duplicitous and unlikeable of the expansive cast are treated with a mature psychological understanding of human nature that I can’t help but suspect must have been enriched by Maidman’s years of artistic study. This fact allows Zanzibar to reveal its characters as it progresses, unfolding their natures and drawing attention to the ways in which we are all, ultimately, contextual and contingent. It’s a book that very much cares for its characters, and in the smallest and sharpest of moments, it doesn’t flinch from revealing their sorrows and their joys. Maidman doesn’t need melodrama to do this–instead he relies on the simplicity and power of a strong image, or the familiarity he can depend on his audience feeling when it comes to the loss of a friend or the joy in finding a new one.

“The tiny pupils were like rotating locks of tremendous ingenuity, which constantly changed their shape to deny every key.”

The Exile of Zanzibar is a novel worth not only reading, but thinking and writing and dreaming about. Whether it haunts you with the image of a tower everyone can always see but never reach (one of my favourite elements), delights you as Claire discovers new corners of the city, or sweeps you up in the political drama playing out in Florence and its environs, Zanzibar is certain to leave an impression. This is an indie debut that embodies exactly what I was hoping to find from the self-published world: authors taking chances with inventive and risky new ideas. The rich symbolism and keen visual sense will captivate you, and the poignancy of its character moments move you.

 

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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