It is early 1861 and Zeke Hampton is returning from the Mexican Civil War, where he has been fighting on the side of the rebels, back to his home in San Francisco, where he finds his own country on the verge of its own Civil War. In State of Conflict by Mark Hess, Zeke is unusual in that although he is white, he was adopted and raised by a family of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He sees the forthcoming war in very clear terms – to him, it is about giving freedom and dignity to another group of people who have been discriminated against and enslaved merely because of their skin colour. There is never any doubt that Zeke Hampton will enlist in the Union Army and with California, teetering between supporting the Union or the Confederacy he was always going to be caught up in the intrigue, spying and double-dealing that would go on all around him, even at the higher levels of the Union Army. Zeke, schooled by his older Chinese brother in the art of hand to hand fighting (kung-fu, presumably) and in the Art of War as expounded by Sun Tzu, was always going to be a different type of soldier, albeit an effective one, to his comrades.
State of Conflict by Mark Hess lifts itself above the average run-of-the-mill novels about the Civil War period, simply by the nature of its lead character, Ezekial Hampton. Zeke is an enigma, mainly because he was raised in a Chinese family and differs so greatly, in his outlook and actions, from his fellow soldiers in the Union Army. What becomes apparent early on in the story is that the Union Army was anything but homogeneous, with the Army, as was the country, populated by immigrants from all over the world. I particularly liked the view the author gave of the Chinese immigrant family and their struggle for acceptance in an increasingly hostile California. It was clear Zeke’s character and his view of right and wrong came from his adoptive parents and brother. The author’s style allowed the narrative to flow well and I particularly enjoyed the interaction between Zeke’s fiancée, Katy’s family and his adoptive Chinese family. The message of tolerance and understanding of that which we don’t understand came through the writing, loud and clear. The addition of philosophy, especially the art of war and life from Sun Tzu just gave the narrative something special and I appreciated the author’s intent with this.