Wayne Karlin, . . Curbstone, $16.95 (342pp) ISBN 978-1-880684-89-4

Karlin turns the stereotypes of colonial America upside down in this latest effort, a powerful, vividly imagined historical novel about a running battle between a violent carpenter and his former slave that takes place during a trade war in the Chesapeake Bay area in the 17th century. James Hallam opens the book working as an indentured carpenter for the powerful Lord Calvert, but when he finishes his task he earns both his freedom and the ownership of the slave who assisted him, Ezekiel. But Hallam forfeits his right to Ezekiel when he insults Calvert after the nobleman tries to persuade him to enlist in his militia and fight against Calvert's chief rival, William Claiborne. Ezekiel's happiness in his new-found freedom turns out to be brief when Hallam finds him with a Susquehannock woman that the former slave has rescued from tribal punishment, and when Hallam brutally rapes the woman the deadly feud between the pair is off and running. The trade war proves equally nasty as Calvert and Claiborne battle to control the lucrative beaver pelt trade, with casualties including several Maryland tribes, most notably the Piscataway, the Susquehannocks and the Anacostas. Karlin's primary subplot revolves around a search for his identity by another former slave named Tawzin, a Piscataway tribesman who has returned to America after being kidnapped and spending his formative years in Europe. Karlin remains unflinching in his portrayal of the savagery of both whites and natives, but he balances the violence with a heady blend of brilliant characterizations, his use of poetic, lurid animal imagery and a compelling narrative. Some murky plotting slows the proceedings occasionally, but Karlin goes beyond the genteel world depicted in most colonial novels to create a riveting stage for his unusual, terrifying passion play. (Sept.)