Sinai Tapesty - Edward Whittemore

Another review for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Sinai Tapestry
Volume One of the Jerusalem Quartet
Edward Whittemore
Old Earth Books (Baltimore, Maryland)
ISBN: 1882968220 (Amazon link)

Summary: I find it difficult to describe the remarkable novel. It's like trying to describe a vivid, lush nightmare gifted to you by an unusually kindly and inventive flu virus. Sinai Tapestry is a heady, dense fantasy set in and around the Holy Land - which as a setting hardly needs much help in the Story department. This is probably right up your street if you admire Jeff VanderMeer for example, but is likely too rich and unusual a dish for those brought up on Commercial Fantasy. Me? I appreciated it, and in particular I admired the technical skill involved in getting such a rich tapestry onto the page using such simple, unadorned prose, but overall, this novel didn't quite work for me in some hard to define sense; I think need more structure in my novels, even those outrageously fabulist (I'll stick to Umberto Eco for example). I will put the sequels on my "Make time for" list though. This isn't exactly to my taste, but it's such a wonderfully rich thicket of stories than there's no way I can deny myself more.

As noted above, I find this novel difficult to review. I'm not a critic, or a reviewer, I just read a lot (and even that mainly because I don't sleep well to be honest!) and enjoying telling other people to "Oh, oh, read this!". I lack the vocabularly, or background to talk about certain types of novels. This novel falls into one of those categories - I would flounder to describe it to you in person; I know I'd simply end up giving you my copy to read, with the caveat that you have to let me know what the heck you thought it was about... Not what happened, but what it was about.

This is a reasonably obscure title apparently, I picked it up from the (seemingly eternal) "Little known urban fantasy gems?" thread. What I have is a re-issue by a minor publishing house of what many heap praise upon as a classic, not so much forgotten as never discovered. As an aside, this book sports not one, but two introductions, and an editorial afterword. While all three reflect a personal intimacy and admiration for the author, I have to admit I found the introductions in particular to be rather over-long, badly written and almost off-putting... Which is petty of me given the obvious sincerity and emotion in these sections.

Anyway, what is this about? Well, that's an easy question to ask, and a hard one to answer. I can tell you where the novel is set, in and around Jerusalem, and Sinai obviously. A few excursions here and there; England, Ireland, the usual. Who are the characters? Well, there's Wallenstein, an Albanian Trappist monk who finds the oldest bible in the world in a monastery in Jerusalem. It denies every religious truth ever held by anyone. Wallenstein then spends a major portion of his life frantically preparing his own forgery, a forgery of the 'real' oldest bible, to hide the Sinai bible from the world.

See - summed up like that this doesn't sound so bad! It's going to be ripe with history and imagery of course, but surely this is no more heady than, say, Wilton Barnhardt's Gospel? (A- for Gospel by the way) Um, no. Even those few pages introducing us to Wllenstein's lineage contain more background colour, coincidence, unusual events, characterisation, invented history, truth stranger than fiction and feeling than most novels. All told in a slickly detached way. Imagine the world's most erudite biblical scholar, cheerfully drunk, babbling on at you. In an asylum. Now imagine you're drunk too. You must be, just a little, for the steady stream of fantastical nonsense, all told very simply and lucidly mind you, to make any sense. Worse, much of it is rather moving, despite the glib tone.

So, I was talking about our pious monk turned hermit forger; let's have a quick look at the other other characters. I'm going to steal from a review which helped me decide to buy this title several weeks ago:

"There is Strongbow, seven foot-seven tall, bronze sundial girded to
his loins, an English lord who is a brilliant botanist and the author
of a 33-volume study of Levantine sex. There Is Haj Haroun, owner of an
antiquities shop in the Old City, who is as old as Jerusalem itself and
wears a rusty Crusader helmet.There is Joe O'Sullivan Beare, an Irish
patriot from the Aran Islands who waged a one-man war on the Black and
Tans before escaping to the Holy Land disguised an a nun."

I keep dipping into the book to find a piece to offer as typical - for I reckon that there's no way to judge a book without seeing something of the writing, but I keep finding that 10 minutes have gone past and I have just re-read a chapter... I'm going to give this review up now, indicate the title feebly on the shelf and suggest you read it for yourself. Here's how things start:

"The Arabic Jew, or Jewish Arab, who owned the entire Middle East at
the turn of the centure passed his early life exactly as had his
English forbears for six hundred and fifty years.
At the family estate in southern England he was taught to care
for flowers, especially roses. His parents died while he was young
and his aunts and uncles moved into the manor to raise him. In due
time he would receive his title and become the twenty-ninth
Plantagenet Strongbow to bear it, merely one more Duke or Dorset.
For it seemed that destiny had found a resting place among the
Strongbows. At one time, thought to be about 1170, one of their line
had helped subdue eatern Ireland and been given a title because of
it. Since then the family had lapsed into patterns. Confusion had
been lost or forgotten. Instead there was repetition and order.
The oldest son in each generation always married on the day he
assumed his majority and became the new lord.His wife matched him in
wealth and shared his concern for flowers. Children appeared at
regular internals until five or six had been born, more or less
equally divided between males and females. By that time the duke and
his duchess were thrity, or nearly thirty, and both abruptly died by
The accidents were routinely silly. After drinking an excess of
mead late at night they might fall asleep and fall into the
fireplace. Or they might doze off in a trout stream and drown in a
foot of water.
Following the flight of a butterfly after breakfast, they would
wander off a parapet.Or they might absentmindedly swallow a mutton
joint whole, causing suffocation. Or a mild sexual diversion such as
dressing up in medieval armor would lead to fatal hemorraging in the
pelvic region.
Under these conditions, despite their wealth and genuine concern
for flowers, it was unlikely the Dukes of Dorset would ever have
distinguished themselves in the world even if they had lived beyond
the age of thirty, and in fact none ever did."

Posted: Mon - June 2, 2003 at 11:48 PM