Shaka II, by Mike Resnick
Reviewed by Carl Slaughter
From the introduction:
“In the early nineteenth century, the famous and infamous Shaka carved a mighty Zulu kingdom out of the patchwork of tribes in Southern Africa. Before his death, he organised vast armies of warriors whose assegais brought terror to an entire subcontinent, and expanded his patrimony from a tiny principality to a broad and fertile domain. Then he was cut down, and his empire, under inferior leadership, eventually fell to the Boers and the British. But for how long?
A few hundred years from now, the Zulus of South Africa are quiescent, but parents gaze at each newborn son wondering: will this be the One to revive our fortunes? Then, fulfilling the implicit prophecy, Robert ole Buthelezi appears from nowhere, and in a bewilderingly short time restores Shaka’s name and dominion.”
This is the first story I’ve read by Mike Resnick. When I read the first sentence, I knew I was in good hands. By the end of the Prologue, I could see that the author is a master storyteller.
In the Prologue, Resnick vividly builds the suspense leading to the arrival of Shaka II. First by rehearsing the greatness of the first Shaka’s empire, then by tracing the step by step reduction of Zulu power and influence, then by describing the loss of dignity and the longstanding hope for a messiah.
In the opening chapter, Shaka II’s half brother intriguingly convinces us the Zulu messiah was unmistakably exceptionally different from a very early age. Not only different than other children, but different than other humans. But not different in the regal or charismatic sense. Only his half-brother recognized something special about him. So in Resnick’s portrayal of Shaka II’s early life, he doesn’t use the cliché of a child obviously destined for greatness. This is refreshing.
The dialog between the brothers is crisp and entertaining. Shaka II, or Robert at this point in the story, disappears for ten years. Then he returns to announce himself to an audience of one, his half-brother John. With utter seriousness and without a hint of insanity, Robert declares greatness for himself and his tribe. Unimpressed with Robert’s mysterious confidence and vague references, John responds with embarrassing humor, repeatedly invoking Robert’s lack of physical evidence, even lack of a plan. The author seems to have forgotten that John was the only one who recognized an aura about his younger brother early on.
At this point, the reader wonders about Robert’s differentness. Is he a demon incarnate? Is he a clone? An alien? His brother watches him grow up, so we know Robert isn’t an android. So how can he be so certain of himself and the future? How can he be so callous about the cost to others and even himself? How can he be so determined, so unaffected by circumstance?
Readers can sleepwalk through the next few chapters. The plot becomes predictable. Robert demonstrates himself to be one third messiah, one third visionary, one third shrewd, scheming thug. He bribes, bullies, and destroys his way to the presidency of South Africa and beyond. Then way beyond: space.
But you won’t sleepwalk through one passage in a subsequent part of the book. When Tchaka–the native name, Shaka being the western translation–arouses the indignation of the international community, he takes advantage of the situation by making a televised speech. He demands that western nations return land to indigenous people and that monarchs without popular support resign. Judging from what he has said and done so far, it’s easy to predict his demands are neither rebuttal nor sarcasm. Turns out he’s not interested in Earth at all.
Tchaka repeatedly fires or executes incompetent or untrustworthy aids. He also repeatedly expresses contempt or amazement toward the small-minded people surrounding him. Both of these routines eventually get tiresome for the reader. But I never got tired of watching him outmaneuver every enemy every step of the way.
It’s when Tchaka ventures into space that the science fiction element enters and the story gets interesting again. He ignores the galactic war Earth is waging and instead colonizes several worlds, abandoning Earth in the process. His conquests continue across the galaxy and his trademark ruthlessness and brutality is applied to planets instead of nations.
Eventually, his inhumanity catches up with him, he descends into madness, turns a nightmare loose on his empire, and seals his own fate.
The Epilogue is perfect. I won’t spoil it for you.
Shaka II has an ambitious and increasingly sophisticated plot. It also has well-built, consistent character development. The writing style is clear, so the confusion level is zero. In this reviewer’s opinion, the best feature is in Resnick’s gift for dialog. Some conversations consume most of a chapter. The banter is crisp and insightful. Although I was disappointed with the lack of creativity in an early section of this novella, I was still impressed with the writing.
Shaka II is a masterpiece and I look forward to getting caught up on Resnick’s other work.