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Felaheen: The Third Arabesk
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Earthlight, 357 pages

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta, and grew up in Malta, England, the Far East and Norway. He has worked as a publisher and a journalist. His novels include neoAddix, Lucifer's Dragon, reMix and redRobe. He lives in London.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Effendi
SF Site Interview: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
SF Site Excerpt: Effendi
SF Site Excerpt: Pashazade
SF Site Review: Pashazade
Extract from redRobe
Extract from reMix
Extract from Lucifer's Dragon

Pasha-Movie by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series is set in a mildly alternate world, in which the First World War ended before it really got going, and both the German Reich and the Ottoman Empire survived into the twenty-first century. It features Ashraf Bey -- ex-Chief of Detectives, ex-Governor of the ancient North African city of El Iskandriya, uncle to the precocious Hani, would-be lover to the conflicted Zara, and possible son to the enigmatic Emir of Tunis. Ashraf is on a journey, traveling simultaneously through the sun-bleached outer spaces of Grimwood's lushly-evoked Islamic North Africa, in search of a place where he can belong, and the far darker inner spaces of his own tortured psyche, exploring a personal history that includes genetic enhancement, parental abandonment, various violent criminal pursuits, and inner voices that may or may not be imaginary. Felaheen brings the series to a satisfying conclusion, unpacking its central mystery -- the truth of Raf's parentage -- and bringing Raf, at last, to a destination: a place in the world, an acceptance of identity.

Felaheen begins immediately after the events of Effendi, with Raf at loose ends. Apart from his mostly ceremonial Third Circle directorate, he's jobless, beset by the frustrations of looking after his frighteningly intelligent niece and the stresses of living with a woman he loves but isn't sleeping with. Out of the blue, he's approached by Eugenie de la Croix, director of security for his putative father the Emir. There has been an assassination attempt; the Emir's eldest son, Kashif Pasha, has declared that a group of populist rebels is behind it, but Eugenie has her doubts, and wants Raf's help protecting the Emir. As payment, she promises money, and something of much more value to Raf: proof of what he's always doubted, that his mother really slept with the Emir.

What she actually gives Raf -- an old photograph showing his mother and the Emir, but also the Swedish hitchhiker whom his mother swore was Raf's real father -- is hardly conclusive. Realizing that if there's another assassination attempt there may be no one left alive to tell him the truth, Raf vanishes into the underbelly of Tunisian society, on the trail of the Emir's attackers and also of his own history. He doesn't anticipate that the cryptic note he leaves for Hani will inspire her to try and track him, or that she'll do so with such success -- a quest that takes her, and also Zara, inevitably into harm's way. Meanwhile, as in the previous volumes, a parallel story unfolds in flashback -- this time involving Raf's mother Sally Welham, anti-globalization activist and eco-terrorist, revealing the sequence of events that brought her to the moment of Eugenie's photograph.

Grimwood likes to make his readers work. He tends to write around his characters' experiences, portraying the beginning of an action or discovery, jumping away to something else, returning after the incident has played out and leaving it to the reader to put together what really happened. This volume is perhaps the most elliptical of the three, with a good deal of the narrative given over to things that happen at the edges of important events -- such as Raf's stint, when he goes undercover, in a couple of Tunisian restaurant kitchens -- and some pivotal action occurring offstage, as in the banquet scene at which a second assassination attempt is made upon the Emir. Raf has a role to play in this scene, but it's presented from the point of view of Hani, who doesn't really understand what's going on; because Grimwood hasn't shown how Raf got from the kitchen to the banquet, neither, for the moment, does the reader. Not until afterward are the necessary clues provided to put things together. This obliqueness is occasionally frustrating, but it's also integral to the series' distinctive style.

Though Felaheen has the feel of cyberpunk -- Raf, with his black clothes and omnipresent shades, his genetic enhancements and fractured history, his blend of attitude and ennui, is the perfect cyberpunk hero -- the science fictional elements take a back seat. At the book's climax, in fact, Raf briefly takes on qualities of myth, appearing to those who encounter him almost as a supernatural creature. The crime-thriller elements that drove the first two volumes also fall into the background; there is a murder mystery in Felaheen, but it's relegated to a subplot. What really carries this book, and also distinguishes the series as a whole, is character and setting -- the complicated network of personal stories that play out around and within the action of the plot (all of which echo in some way Raf's own quest for identity), and the richly-evoked world in which they are set. Grimwood's North Africa is vividly detailed and powerfully atmospheric, an ancient, polyglot culture stressed by the demands of modernity, the tensions of fundamentalism, and the ever-present weight of its own history. It's a nuanced portrayal of Islamic culture that neither romanticizes nor (as is too common these days) demonizes:

" elegant script edged the space where ceiling and tiled wall joined. It said what the Fatiha always said, words which had echoed across the sands of North Africa for centuries. Bringing war, civilisation, coffee and the veil. Poetry and bloodshed. Algebra, an understanding of the physical working of the human body, and civil war. No worse or better, in Raf's opinion, than the beliefs it replaced or competed against."
As in Effendi, previous events are recalled (filtered, this time, through Raf's own memory, and somewhat transformed by his evolving understanding of himself). The novels are too interlinked, however, to stand well on their own. For the full effect, this fine series should be read through from the beginning.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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