Felaheen - The Third Arabesk - Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

The Third Arabesk
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Earthlight publishers
ISBN: 0743461177 (Amazon link)

Jon Courtenay Grimwood is probably best known for his earlier cyberpunk books (neoAddix, Lucifer's Dragon, reMix, redRobe) but started getting serious critical raves with the release of his fifth, Pashazade.

Pashazade is a cross-genre thriller set in El Iskandria, the cosmopolitan capital of Ottoman Egypt in the 21st century. This is a world where Germany won the first world war, such as it was. The war was brought to a swift conclusion by talks led by the US; the Ottoman empire never collapsed and is now a major power. This particular skewing of world politics to favour older, faded regimes has always been a strength of Grimwood's novels, with his earlier books, particularly redRobe, playing with similar ideas.

The story is difficult to summarise, but involves Ashraf Bey, our hero, who is an Ottoman aristocrat, hence the title, getting involved with a murder mystery, his reclusive nine year old niece who happens to be a genius, and falling in love. Not very SFnal surely?

Or at least he might be an Ottoman aristocrat - Ashraf has some issues. He's not strictly human, having been genetically enhanced. He's not strictly sane, having a talking voice, or voices, in his head. And he's not really sure who is he or what is going on most of the time.

Example? He's currently called ZeeZee, has just been released from prison in the US, had a diplomatic passport with his 'real' identity slapped into his hand and has had his marriage arranged for him by his aunt. His aunt is now dead, and Ashraf/ZeeZee is the suspect. All this is described in lean prose, which effortlessly manages to evoke a wonderful sense of place without resorting to purple prose. (I'm particularly fond of the sensous coffee and almond croissant motif, though I hate both!) So - this isn't your grandfather's SF or crime series then.

Things get even more confused in the emotionally powerful sequel Effendi. I've had Felaheen on order since it was announced on the basis of those two books. You might therefore guess that I'm going to like the third one too...

I do. It's the third in a series, so I'm not sure how many of you will read this review unless you've already read at least Pashazade. I have to confess that I really felt that I'd missed some details due to the gap since reading the first two... but that's just making me look forward to re-reading.

In this final volume we learn more about Raf - the plot centres on the Emir, Moncef, Raf's father. Possible father rather - his mother was quite insistent that Raf was the by-blow of a fling with a Swedish hitch-hiker. The Emir has just survived an assasination attempt, which draws Raf back into the thick of things in short order. Along the way we resolve some of the mysteries about his origins, and some of the mysteries about the current power politics surrounding the Emir and the succession. However, fun as the crazed, hyper-competent, hypo-sane Raf is to read about, much of his thunder is stolen by the double act of the precocious Hani, his niece, now 11 or 12, and the Emir's younger son, Raf's half-brother, Murad al-Mansur.

I enjoyed the novel a lot, but I do have some minor quibbles. The first is slightly unfair - I too read Anthony Bourdin's superb Kitchen Confidential last year, but Felaheen is about the fifth reference to it I've come across this week. I felt the author's desire to cram in some references were a leetle too obvious in some of the detective work. Still, that's being picky.

The second criticism is that this conclusion lacks a little of the emotional punch of the first two. While hardly a novel without passion, for much of the book the detached, cold central character drains all the heat from the plot. For a man literally haunted by the ghosts of his dead, he's very cool...

That said, this is also the novel where Raf where finally becomes more human, managing to resolve some of his central identity issues and establish his own place in the world. This is excellent stuff, and well handled, with Grimwood finally making good on his promises and tying all the threads together. For much of the series the reader is in the dark. There is the central whodunnit mystery expected of the crime/noir plot, there is the political machination by the unfamiliar powers, which aren't easy to predict, and then there is the grand layer of cyberpunk paranoia on top - who the hell is Raf, who is driving him at any given time, and why is he doing what he's doing? Come to that, how can he do some of the things he's doing? Fun.

Quibbles aside, this is a decent close to a splendid series. I can't really recommend it enough, although I know it'll not to be many people's taste. The writing is great, with the setting being as central a character as Raf or Hani, but I could see Grimwood's preferred themes not engaging with some people, particularly those drawn by the cross-over nature of the series. I suspect those who loved the bright neon of his earlier cyberpunk work will find the sun-bleached El Iskandria too quiet, while die hard fans of noir crime novels might easily bounce off the genetic manipulation and other overt SF tropes.

Here's how things start:

'Dig', said the fox.
So Ashraf Bey dug. Fingers bleeding and grit compacted beneath his broken nails. With only their sticky rawness to persuade him that he was still in the land of the living.
'Dig harder.'
So he did that too. Handful after handful of coarse salt tumbling into his face, blinding his eyes and filling his mouth, half open to drag oxygen from dead, fetid air. The voice in his head had promised to help Raf reach the surface but only if he obeyed every order without argument. Foxes were good at digging their way out of traps apparently. Raf's biggest problem before he got buried alive was that no one had told him how far his authority went as the new Chief of Police for Tunis, so he'd decided to assume it went as far as he wanted; which was how he'd ended up...
'Like this, really.'
Raf wasn't too worried about talking to an animal that didn't exist. For a start he had a number of hallucinogens infecting his bloodstream, from an acid/ketamine mix to a particularly virulent grade of skunk. And besides he knows Tiri was just an illusion.
They'd been through this. It was sorted out.
According to Tiri a thousand camels once fell through the crust of Ifriqiya's great salt lake, lashed to each other in a baggage train. With the beasts went their cargo of dates, the master of the caravanserai and those who led the animals. Only one man survived, a slave who was driven into the desert for lying. His untrustworthy testimony had been that nothing existed below the ground over which they'd walked but void. What he'd thought was endlessly real was no more solid than the skin of a drum or the shell of an egg sucked dry by a snake.
'So you see,' said the fox, 'Things are...'
'...never what they seem.' Raf punched one fist through earth to reach air, 'So you keep telling me.'

Interestingly, in the acknowledgements he thanks Kim Newman, Paul McAuley, China Mieville, M John Harrison and Pat Cadigan; a list that might be a useful litmus test for those of you new to Grimwood.

There's a short interview with Grimwood that I thought was interesting.

Finally, if you can, find the UK hardbacks, the covers are imaginative and gorgeous. Here's the first one.

Posted: Sat - May 17, 2003 at 01:13 AM