Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Pashazade: The First Arabesk
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Simon & Schuster Earthlight, 330 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 Winchester.

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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Grimwood's fifth novel is an SF/mystery hybrid set in an alternate world in which Germany won the First World War, and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed. Egypt is an autonomous province of the Empire; on its Mediterranean shore sits the free city of El Iskandryia, where sybaritic luxury rubs shoulders with desperate poverty, and the strict, ancient codes of Islam coexist uneasily with the decadent excesses of the modern world.

Ashraf el-Mansur, also known as Zee-Zee, is a young man with a troubled past. He's on the run from a Seattle prison, in an escape engineered by his aunt, Lady Nafisa, whom he's never met. Arriving in El Iskandryia, Ashraf -- who till now hasn't even known his father's name -- discovers to his shock that he's the legitimate son of the Emir of Tunis, and therefore entitled to the high rank of Bey under Ottoman law. That's not all: a marriage has been brokered for him, to the daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist -- a young woman he dislikes almost on sight.

But before Ashraf can take stock of his new situation, Lady Nafisa is murdered. Ashraf finds himself the sole inheritor of his aunt's estate, responsible for the welfare of his nine-year-old niece, Hani. He's also a suspect in Lady Nafisa's killing. To save himself (and Hani), he must turn detective, and go looking for the truth in a city he doesn't know and a culture he doesn't understand, where secrets run very deep and very little is what it seems.

The suspense in Pashazade doesn't really lie in the murder mystery -- the solution to which actually isn't tremendously interesting, when it arrives -- but in the personal journey it forces Ashraf to make. The challenge of finding his aunt's killers and clearing his name is only part of a larger struggle to unravel the secrets of his unexpected heritage and come to terms with his history. In Hani, unloved and neglected, he sees the ghost of his own unhappy childhood; Hani can be rescued, as he himself never was, but to do that he must find the strength, for the first time in his life, to take responsibility for a human being other than himself. It's a convincing portrait of a man shaking off the demons of his past and becoming, finally, the person he was meant to be.

The cyberpunk elements that have been such a strong feature of Grimwood's previous fiction are downplayed in Pashazade. There are the obligatory references to nanotech, smart guns, cybernetic enhancements and the like, but for the most part Grimwood's vividly-evoked, near-future El Iskandryia feels oddly timeless, a place in which ancient ways have endured unchanged across the centuries. The city, Grimwood tells us, is "built on the rubble of its own history"; this persistence of the old beneath the facade of the new is a recurring theme throughout the book, something Ashraf frequently runs afoul of in his search for answers.

Not everything adds up. Some of the cyberpunkisms seem imperfectly worked-out -- Ashraf's cybergenetic enhancements, for instance, including a piece of self-diagnostic hardware that manifests itself, or which Ashraf has personified as, an Arctic fox. While it's clear that the hardware/fox is part of the baggage Ashraf must discard in his struggle to find himself, the whys and hows of the hardware/fox itself -- which include a real fox somewhere in Ashraf's past -- are never fully explained. The timeline is also confusing; at one point, it seems we must be well into the 21st century, but at another we don't seem much beyond 2000, an impression furthered by the fact that so many things, from stores to computer programs to brand names, seem entirely unchanged from the real-world present day. I don't find it totally plausible that in a world with nanotech, people would still be running Linux and shopping at Walmart -- or that in an alternate world, these things would have developed in just the same way. But the alternate history aspect of the book is also pretty vague -- so while things don't quite connect, they don't actively contradict, either.

Caveats aside, Pashazade is a well-crafted and absorbing novel, and a welcome step forward for Grimwood into a more thoughtful, less frenetic style.

Copyright © 2001 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.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide