Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review of "Felaheen" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

*July 8, 2013 - Dissatisfied with the original review, below is a re-posting with significant revisions.

The scene set and characters introduced in Pashazade and the broader picture of El Ishkandryia painted in Effendi, Felaheen (2003) is the closing chapter in the Arabesk trilogy.  Ashraf’s history the open issue, Jon Courtenay Grimwood puts his main character through the toughest ringer yet in discovering the answer—if it can be answered at all, history being the greased pig that it is.  As hinted at by the title (for those who have been paying attention in the series thus far), things will not turn out as the reader expects.  Style-wise, the novel is the best written of the three, making for a smart conclusion to a smart trilogy.  (Perhaps it goes without saying: do not attempt Felaheen—or this review—if you have not read the first two books.)

Remaining part alternate history, part mainstream fiction, part cyberpunk, and all detective noir, 2003 Felaheen is a conclusion fully consistent with Pashazade and Effendi.  Grimwood pulling no tricks on the reader, the setting, style, and characters are as reliable as ever.  What remains unreliable, however, is the plot.  Ashraf going to meet his alleged father, the Emir of Tunis, at the outset of the novel, his arrival portends an assassination attempt on Emir.  Unsure who would care to kill the crazed elderly man, Ashraf must investigate to clear his own name, and in the process protect himself from the Emir’s other son, one Kashif Pasha, who may or may not be vying to usurp Raf’s inheritance of Tunisia.  Forced underground, the secrets Raf uncovers may lead him to his heritage, and then again, it may lead to his death.

Filling out roughly half of Felaheen are flashbacks to the younger days of Raf’s mother, Sally Welham.  Bohemian ways making her a world traveler with a lot of frivolity, it is fleshing out her travels, through Thailand, Tunisia, and New York, that the details of Raf’s parentage begin to filter into place.  As with the previous books, Hani and Zara continue to play important roles, their interrelationship with Raf concluded—but not how readers may expect.

The first two books in the Arabesk series nominated, Felaheen finally won Grimwood the BSFA award in 2003.  And it’s easy to see why.  His prose is crisp and polished, and the themes at work, including the value of identity, relativism of history, and the environment, not to mention the religious and cultural concerns of Islam and North Africa as they confront a globalizing world, are all issues poignant to not only literary minded science fiction, but society at large.  Like all good writers, Grimwood’s voice never proselytizes and is able to relate these concerns in a fashion that suits the story yet rises above to strike the reader as important beyond the covers.  Readers can argue which of the three novels of Arabesk is best, but given the consistency it’s good to see Grimwood finally rewarded for the effort.

The issue the same throughout the series, I have saved my sticking point until the closing novel.  The only point where the books fall short is creative expectation.  Having borrowed the alternate history idea at work in Dick’s Man in the High Castle, the biotech of Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, the noir moods of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and the mainstream plotting of most New York Times bestsellers, Grimwood adds little new to the genre except a solid, well conceived effort.  And while it certainly requires skill to combine these different elements into a single story, such books remain derivative rather than pace-setting.  It fills the gaps rather than creating them.  This is not to say that every author should aim to push the limits of sci-fi, but by merely riding the laurels of others, it’s difficult to say with certainty that the author has earned a place among the greats.   There is a place for Grimwood’s sci-fi, and he occupies it in style.  Suffice to say, Arabesk is recommended as quality reading, just not as cutting edge.

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