Pashazade: The First Arabesk, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

pashazade-the-first-arabesk-by-jon-courtenay-grimwood coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Earthlight
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Wendy A. Shaffer

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Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Pashazade: The First Arabesk offers readers a fast-paced tale of murder and intrigue set in the near future city of El Iskandryia, better known to Westerners as Alexandria. Though this El Iskandryia isn’t quite the same one as readers, Eastern or Western, might know; it’s a city from an alternate timeline in which World War I (which Grimwood’s characters prefer to call the Third Balkan War) was ended by a US-brokered peace agreement almost before it began. One of many consequences of this shift in history is that the Ottoman Empire never disintegrated, and remains a major world power.

I risk giving the wrong impression by starting with this necessary back story. Pashazade is not really what I think of as a typical alternate history novel. The alternate history device is used primarily to allow Grimwood to set his story in a milieu where an Islamic world power is grappling with modernity. The grappling is particularly fierce in El Iskandryia, which is a center of international diplomacy, commerce (both licit and illicit) and intrigue. El Iskandryia’s upper classes are wealthy, urbane, and occasionally corrupt, but they can also be strongly bound by tradition.

Into this milieu, Grimwood drops a character who’s guaranteed to be a fish out of water. A young man named ZeeZee has just escaped (or been let out) of a Seattle prison where he’s been serving a sentence for a murder that he’s pretty sure he didn’t commit. In rapid succession, he receives a diplomatic passport, a ticket to El Iskandryia, and the information that he is the son of the Emir of Tunis, and that his real name is Ashraf al-Mansur. Just to top this off, his new family, in the person of his Aunt Nafisa, has just arranged his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy El Iskandryian businessman.

Matters do not proceed smoothly. Ashraf, or Raf as he prefers to be called, doesn’t really believe that he’s the Emir’s son, but he’s not eager to go back to prison, or to attract the attention of some former criminal associates who probably want him dead. He tries to play along, but high-class El Iskandryian society expects him to be discreet, dutiful, and devout. Raf is temperamentally unsuited to be any of these things. His American dress and manners quickly cause a stir. The stir becomes a scandal when Raf announces that he won’t marry the girl to whom he’s been betrothed. And scandal becomes an uproar when Aunt Nafisa is murdered, and Raf becomes the prime suspect.

Raf then faces the two tasks of staying out of police custody and trying to find the real killer, who, having disposed of Aunt Nafisa, is now trying to kill Raf. Raf’s principal allies at this point are his nine-year-old cousin, Hani; his ex-fiancee, Zara; and the fox, a decaying personality construct implanted in Raf’s skull, who has served as Raf’s advisor and surrogate parent ever since Raf’s childhood, and who appears to Raf in the guise of a silver fox.

The fox is only the first of many hints the reader gets about Raf’s mysterious past. Grimwood intersperses the El Iskandryian storyline of the book with flashbacks to Raf’s past. Raf may or may not be the son of the Emir of Tunis, but it’s clear that someone powerful has taken an interest in him from an early age: he’s been gifted not only with the fox personality implant, but with a number of genetic modifications. There are mysteries in Raf’s past life, mysteries which aren’t resolved in this book. I suspect we’re set for more revelations in further books of the series.

Readers needn’t fear, however, that this first book of series will leave them completely dangling. The El Iskandryian murder plot wraps up with a tense and satisfying final confrontation with the killer. My only quibble is that I did find the revelation of the killer’s ultimate motive a bit anti-climactic, but this can be a problem in any mystery where the murderer is insane, and thus, almost by definition, has motives that the ordinary reader can’t sympathize with.

I’ve heard this series compared to George Alec Effinger’s classic Marid Audran novels (When Gravity Fails, etc.) Both series contain cyberpunkish crime stories set in a near future North African city, with plots in which the hero finds his efforts stymied by police corruption and the intrigues of the powerful. Similarities notwithstanding, the two series strike me as being very different in flavor. I suppose I’d say that Grimwood’s series, at least to the extent that Pashazade is representative, feels a bit more upbeat to me. As tense as things may get, Raf seems to be having fun most of the time. Some readers may prefer the greater grittiness of Effinger’s books, while others may prefer the rollercoaster sense of fun provided by Grimwood’s. Still, I’d recommend that fans of Effinger’s series take a look at Pashazade, and vice versa.

Overall, Pashazade offers readers fast-paced SF adventure set in an exotic milieu, and promises more to follow in subsequent books of the series.

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