Last Updated on February 11, 2024
The Exile of Zanzibar is Daniel Maidman’s debut fantasy novel set in a fictional version of Florence during the Bronze Age. King Ambrosius the Ninth of Florence wages war with the neighboring city of Genova as a mysterious woman appears in a glowing gold palanquin.
The visitor is Claire, a “patricia of Zanzibar” and student of metaphysics who has constructed a device that folds space and time. But everything goes wrong when she finds herself in the middle of a faraway war zone. Claire desperately wants to return to her home of Zanzibar:
“I am the last daughter Reason bore; I rose from Zanzibar and to Zanzibar I must return.”
Claire recognizes that she needs help from the local populace if she has any hope of returning home. She befriends Marcus Diophantus, a Florentine city man and former pickpocket who rises to become a respected military leader. Claire and Marcus work together to forge peace between Florence and Genova.
Marcus also develops a romantic interest in Claire, who becomes known as the “Sower of Peace.” The relationship between these two characters is the emotional core of the novel. But the Sower of Peace becomes entangled in a web of political intrigue amid the changing power dynamics prompted by her wartime intervention.
The author, Daniel Maidman, is also an artist and an art critic. His art is included in several American art museums and is part of the permanent collections at the Library of Congress Department of Prints and Drawings. Maidman brings his artistic talent to The Exile of Zanzibar with his gorgeous interior artwork, depicting several characters and scenes from the novel. While the writing could feel a bit academic at times, I found that the artwork helped establish a stronger emotional connection with the characters.
Although The Exile of Zanzibar is available as an electronic book, I’d strongly recommend investing in a hardcover copy of this novel. From the exquisite artwork to the minute details of the font kerning, Daniel Maidman has paid keen attention to every aspect of this volume.
Daniel Maidman’s writing is erudite but accessible, reminding me of the late Italian master, Umberto Eco. There is a gravity to Maidman’s prose that has a feel of ancient history brought to life. Maidman obviously shares Eco’s love of history and philosophy, constructing a sophisticated, labyrinthine plot worthy of Foucault’s Pendulum. Although it’s not mentioned in his biography, I wouldn’t be surprised if Daniel Maidman is also a scholar of semiotics: the detailed attention that he pays to symbols and colors throughout The Exile of Zanzibar also echoes the great Eco.
The worldbuilding of The Exile of Zanzibar is essentially classical antiquity with a splash of magic and sci-fi. There is a strong military fantasy aspect of the novel, and grimdark readers will appreciate the layers of gray morality that Daniel Maidman has woven into the political fabric of the story.
Overall, The Exile of Zanzibar is a meticulously crafted debut and a must-read for fans of Umberto Eco. The story will continue with Lucky Angel, the second volume of the Railroad to Zanzibar series.