Well, where to start? I think every reader have has a spectrum of books they like to read within. It’s also true for me. I mainly read romances with same-sex couples as main characters. My spectrum extends from WWI and WWII (or modern military romances) through time travel to sci-fis taking place in space or intergalactic environment. Sometimes I read romantic comedies, or folktales put in a new, modern aspect, or horrors, ghost stories.
Ok, I can read a whole variety of books. But then, what kind of books do I read rarely? Young Adult. I’m not so young anymore. Or ancient history like ancient greek or roman empire. Because I’m not so ancient. Exceptions may be made. If it’s a time-travelling story and the main characters jump back to an epoch that far, I have no problem with it. Or I rarely read anything pre-historical or medieval. I can’t explain well why, these books are just not my first choice when I’m deciding my next read.
If we look at the comfort zone from an other – geographical – angle, I’ve never read books taking place in Africa. Not because I have any grudge or stereotypical opinion about that continent, I just simply picked other books over them. I know next to nothing about the continent even though I learned some minimal stuff regarding Africa’s history, the colonization, the movements to get free under the British and French etc. occupation while I was in high school and university. And naturally I watch and read the news, but this won’t make me an expert…
But recently I came across two books I had to read without any delay. The first one was Blood and Milk from N.R. Walker, the other one was Soul on Fire from Tal Bauer. And I can say with most certainty that both books were eyeopening, starting from their approach towards the African continent. N.R. Walker is an Australian author and usually writes romances from the point of regular, everyday guys’ view. On the contrary Tal Bauer is the master of military and political fictions.
At this point you could say – and you would be right -, that putting Tal Bauer’s book as something out of my comfort zone is a cheat, but at least a stretch. But believe me, Tal setting the plot in Africa really got me off-balance. I departed on these journeys as explorers sailing for the unknown. It was a tiring experience, but it was totally worth the time. I can proudly say that I learned a lot (I love those reads forcing me to do some supplementary researches).
So let’s check our two books. Shall we? Be aware of minor/major spoilers from here. I promise to keep the spoilers on a minimum level but in some cases I might not be able to avoid them.
Blood and Milk (N.R. Walker)
Heath Crowley was an Australian advertising agent having premonition dreams (and different colored eyes) living a good life in Sydney. Until he’d lost everything to a hate crime. His husband, Jarrod was killed, he himself badly hurt and his world lost its meaning, only the prosecution of the thugs attacking them got him going. He finally severs all his ties with his family after he gets no support during the trial of their assaulters.
After the trial when the assaulters got what they’ve deserved, Heath’s world really comes to a screeching halt. He doesn’t know what to do, how to continue living, until Jarrod appears in one of his dreams giving him a flight ticket to Tanzania insinuating where he needs to be, that he has to join the Maasai tribe. Because Heath is left with nothing to lose, he follows the dream, leaving Australia only God knows for how long.
The tribe’s chief accepts him in, giving him a new name; Alé, meaning milk, and he finds himself left in the care of the second son of the Chief, Damu. Damu is an outcast among his fellow tribe members, and besides the chief no-one seems to know why. The other tribe members accept him, and treat him as well as possible according to his non-warrior, no-man status. Only the chief’s first born son hates him with an inexplicable fervor.
Damu accepts the new task of taking care of Alé with the peacefulness and acceptance he does everything in his life. He explains Alé the way of life of his tribe, he teaches him everything necessary as well as he is capable of. They become best friends, then much more. In the Maasai tribe homosexual relations are punished by death, so they have to hide their feelings because no-one can know. All the more so, because Kijani’s (Damu’s elder brother) hatred is now extended to Alé too, and he’s just waiting for a chance to get rid of the both of them.
Alé’s continuing to have his premonition dreams, and saves the village on more than one occasion which does exactly nothing to change or deflect Kijani’s hatred towards them. But when it would be the most important to have premonitions (in order to save Damu), his power almost fail him again. Almost, because Jarrod appears once again telling Alé to wake up and get away from the village with Damu.
If I have to chose only one bit of the book to help you to get a feeling of its atmosphere, I would chose the below, because its explains why Damu doesn’t really belong to his tribe, and why Alé is put in his care.
“Kasisi (Damu’s father) say I have hearts” Damu said quietly, holding up two fingers. “One heart for this people, one heart not here”
I blinked trying to guess the significance. “What does that mean?”
“He see I not belong here with whole heart. So I not be warrior.”
I took a steadying breath to tamp down my temper. “What do you think?”
“I belong here. I not know how to belong in other place when I am only here.”
Damu’s logic was sound. How could he belong somewhere else, when he’d never been anywhere else?
Soul on Fire (Tal Bauer)
Soul on Fire depicts the event of an African ebola epidemic outbreak (far too actual story). A Congolese terrorist group tries to weaponize the virus, and sell it to the highest bidder. There are a lot of hidden motives in the book, and nothing is simple not even for the terrorists, who are put to the test and pushed to their limits, same as the main characters.
At the beginning of the story, one of the main characters, Ikolo runs a field hospital and does his damnedest to help as many unfortunates as humanly possible. It is not the first outbreak he experiences, he can be considered a veteran fighting against the epidemic. And he has no clue that the terrorists are using his hospital, and using him to lose their wanted identities and get new ones. Ikolo can provide identification papers for the refugees, and this is what they are taking advantage of.
The other main character is Elliot (lieutenant of US Navy SEAL) entrusted with a mission to save CIA agents who’s covers were blown. Due to this mission he lands in Ikolo’s hospital, and finds himself sealing a deal with the doctor, in which Ikolo agrees to lead Elliot trough the jungle, and Elliot promises to help the children in Ikolo’s hospital.
Speaking of the field hospital, this is the place which brings together the important characters, protagonist and antagonist alike. The hospital is where three different worlds meet for the first time, creating the tension, which becomes the ignition point of the story. Without the “hospital’s gravity” pulling Ikolo, Elliot and Majambu (the antagonist) on the same orbit, the whole story could not take place.
Each one of them are deeply disturbed personalities with scars on their souls aggravated by a lot of bad experiences. Still, Majambu is the one with least of information about him. We are told that everyone in his life was afraid of him, of the dark urge he could not satisfy, only with taking the lives of others. He even had felt salvaged when he’d been taken in Idrissa’s (the terrorist leader) group, where he could act as the right hand man, executioner of the group, bringing fire and brimstone over the enemies of his worshiped leader.
Elliot had learned his lesson being inferior to others the hard way. As a man of color he was always treated as trouble even in America, in the land of freedom and equality. He has a mountain-loads of issues (like insubordination, disrespect towards the higher ranking officers, and his quick temper with a too short fuse due to his constant anger over his real or perceived offenses and insults). And Tal Bauer did a very good job to make us feel for him, feel his indignation his grudge towards everyone judging him without knowing anything about him.
There were different shades of black in the world, he realized. What the world saw when they looked at him, and what the world saw when they looked at Africans. They looked at Ikolo and Keise and saw nothing.
At least Elliot earned the world’s disrespect. There was an acknowledgement in the bitterness, in the virulence. The opposite of love wasn’t hate; it was apathy.
Contrary to him, at first glance Ikolo seems to be someone without any flaw. He’s gentle, he’s accepting, always helping, letting himself to be bared to his bones if that is necessary to save one more soul. And yes, we feel right from the beginning that there must be something behind this holy devotion and self-sacrifice. No one could be this altruistic without terrible events in his life forcing him to work hard for redemption.
“I want to save a life for every on I was forced to take,” Ikolo whispered. “And then I want to keep going. I want to save a life for everyone who was murdered. I want to bring all of them back. I want to fill the Congo, and all of Africa, with all the brilliant minds and hearts and lives we lost. I want to bring so much life back to this country and this continent.”
Ikolo’s heart and soul burned so bright it hurt, made Elliot ache in all the empty places, caverns where he’d carved out all the hurt and pain from every rejection the world had ever given him.
As conclusion, we can say that between Elliot and Ikolo regardless of all the death and suffering the latter is the one who is more alive. Elliot – coming from a relatively good background – is almost dead inside. We can sense that he’s at the verge of giving up his metaphorical swimming against the tide. Contrary to him, Ikolo has resurrecting sparks in his heart for everyone needing it. And Elliot is in dire need to be resurrected, to be shown the beauty, shining lights in the hellish reality of the Ebola epidemic and a heinous terror act unfolding behind the scenes.
Final words – Comparison
Comparing these two books is no easy task. It’s like comparing apples to oranges as the image above suggests. Both are fruits, but their similarities end here. Their color is different, their inner structure is different even their sweetness is different.
In ‘Blood and Milk’ we see the events through the eyes of Heath/Alé, literally, because he’s telling us his story in 1st person POV. While the whole ‘Soul on Fire’ unfolds in a 3rd person POV. Plus the reader jumps from the mind of one character to the next’s. Most of the time we’re in the head of Elliot or Ikolo, Majambu even, but in some chapters we get a glimpse on the events through the eyes of the side-characters also.
Alé is white, and thus Elliot is black, he also got associated with the ‘mzungus’ a slang word used for mainly Europeans, but applied for anyone with lighter skin color or not originating from Africa. And this creates one more conflict in him, which finally leads him to decide to do what his heart and conscience deems right.
So we checked the novels inner structure and colors, but what about their sweetness? Both is bitter-sweet, I can assure you, and neither is an easy read. It is better to get tissues ready, because there is a slight chance you will need them at some point. But I can tell you with absolute confidence that without reading these books I would be deprived of great experiences regarding unknown territories and by this I mean Africa, period. But I wouldn’t know great characters, outstanding writing style and storytelling.
I recommend both books if you want to venture to somewhere lesser known.