I wonder if people are aware of the huge influence the Ottoman Empire had on the world, as we know it. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the Ottoman Empire lasted from around the time of the Crusades until the end of World War One. At one time they controlled all the territory from Turkey along the Mediterranean to Spain; most of the Balkan States including Greece; North Africa, Egypt, the Gulf States, and of course Israel.
Part of that legacy comprises all the Dracula stories. It was the Moors — as they were sometimes referred to — of the Ottoman Empire that Vlad the Impaler slaughtered by the bucket load. After the Empire was forced from Spain, the border between East and West was Bulgaria and the Danube River. At one point, the Empire made it all the way to the gates of Vienna, Austria before being turned back by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
If you lived in the Balkans, either the Turks or the Austro-Hungarians were constantly liberating you until the 19th century. If you ever wondered where the Muslims came from in Bosnia during the ethnic cleansing of the mid 1990s, it was because of the Ottoman Empire. Although it had been well over a hundred years since they had ruled that part of the world, nationalistic hatreds seem to have no shelf life.
So when I found out that British author Jon Courtenay Grimwood had set The Arabesk Trilogy in a world where the Empire has survived until modern times, it was only natural I was intrigued. Since it hasn't been released in Canada yet, the good folk at Random House U.S. were kind enough to send me review copies ahead of the Canadian release date.
In Pashazade, the first book of the series, Grimwood introduces us to not only the characters who will be populating the pages of the trilogy, but his version of how the world turned out after World War One. The Kaiser's temporary advisors to the Sultan still haven't left, but all in all the treaty of 1916 between Germany and the Ottoman Empire has worked out quite well for the Turks. They are able to rule independently in North Africa and follow their own traditional social structure.
The majority of the action takes place in the capital city of the new Empire, El Iskandryia, affectionately known by those who love and despise her as El Isk. It's everything you'd want from a capital city of the East. Part free city like Tunisia in the 1950's with a thriving multinational population of tourists, spies, and even an American chief of police. However, it's first and foremost a Muslim city; with formal manners, exquisite taste, and an aesthetic sensibility the west can never hope to obtain on the surface, and a seething cesspool of crime and deep-seated passions just below the surface.
When the man you meet for dinner smiles and bows to you after the meal, you always look over his shoulder to see if that was the cue for the man behind him to kill you with a well placed bullet or knife. Alcohol is illegal, but you are offered a hookah with the locally cured hash with your morning coffee and newspaper. Women have power behind the scenes but if they walk down the street with bare arms, they risk a fundamentalist slashing their arms to mark them as wanton.
It is into this world that Zee Zee finds himself magically transported from a prison cell in Seattle, Washington, where he's doing time for a murder he didn't commit, to being part of a ruling elite by the name of Ashraf with the title of Bey affixed to his name. It turns out that his blood father, who was married to his mother for five days, is an emir, and Ashraf is his only living heir.
An aunt he's never met has had him released so she can sell him and his title as a husband to the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. When his aunt turns up dead a few days after his very public refusal to marry somebody he's never met, and his nine-year-old niece Hani witnesses their ensuing argument, he becomes a prime suspect in her murder. Fortunately for Ashraf, and Hani as well it turns out, the police who want to arrest him don't have any evidence to hold him with. When you have the honorific Bey attached to your the name the police actually need evidence to hold you for more then eight hours.
One of the things I found so amazing about Pashazade was that after awhile you accept the surroundings without noticing that you are in a different culture. Grimwood is so matter of fact in his writing that El Iskandryia becomes as familiar as any generic Western city in similar circumstances.
The calls to prayer, the sounds of the bazaar, and coffee urns hissing in cafes, form an interior soundtrack that loops throughout the story, only fading as the city wraps itself in the shroud of night that cloaks activities that would be otherwise frowned upon under Muslim rule. Nightclubs with no fixed addresses run on ecstasy and pirate music transmissions and are the playgrounds for the children of money and tourists.
As long as they are discreet, a blind eye will be turned, but if a message needs to be sent, to somebody in specific, or just in general, they are very publicly raided. It's a way to remind the newly rich and the spoiled children of the aristocrats who really are in charge, and how little say they have in the matter.
For Ashraf to survive in this world he has to quickly shed all who he was, and become who he is expected to be. Thanks to a few artificial enhancements, and some genetic engineering that his mother invested in his creation, he is able to survive some initial surprises on instinct and nerve. However, in a society as subtle and ancient as the Ottoman Empire, that will only get you into the game, not offer any guarantee of walking away from the table.
Grimwood does a remarkable job of carrying us through the development of Ashraf Bey. Through flashbacks to childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, we find out how Zee Zee came to be walking through the airport of El Iskandryia at the beginning of the book as someone he'd never heard of. From there, we watch as Zee Zee effects the transformation into Ashraf Bey, a role, it turns out, he was born to play.
The opening salvo in the Arabesk Trilogy, Pashazade, does a remarkable job of not only creating the world where the story takes place, but also in developing the characters who, it appears, will dominate the action over the course of the final two books. Aside from Ashraf, we meet his nine year old niece Hani who until now has lived her entire life indoors in front of a computer monitor; Zara, the young woman he was supposed to marry who, appearances aside, is not your typical spoiled rich brat; and her father, Hamzah, the underworld king with as many legitimate businesses as illegal ones.
The success of this trilogy will rest on Grimwood's ability to sustain what he has started in book one. Characters who constantly surprise and don't know what the word stereotype means, combined with an atmosphere so thick you can taste it, are an unbeatable combination. If books two and three are of the same quality, this will be an incredible ride.