Pashazade: The Arabesk Trilogy Book 1: The First Arabesk
by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575083707
Date: 11 September 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The latest Gollancz reissue of Jon Courtenay Grimwoods acclaimed Arabesk sequence opens with Pashazade, a novel nominated for the BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke, and John W. Campbell awards. We're re-running my review of the original 2001 release in this issue.
"Alternately violent and touching, exotic and strangely familiar. Grimwoods El Iskandryia is a place worth visiting." -- Washington Post
"Fiction so trendy you can wear it" says LOCUS of the work of British writer John Courtenay Grimwood. With the release of Pashazade , JCG adds something new to his designer collection and it is certainly something he can be proud to wear in public!
Drawing on the nomadic wanderings of his youth, JCG sets much of his story in the fictional city of El Iskandryia, an Arabic metropolis set on top of the African continent. This urban landscape is filled with a heady mix of tradition and trendy, of clashing cultures and futuristic throwbacks. Reading Pashazade, a vibrant and living city is evoked. Smells and noises seem to impregnate the text. One can almost smell the coffee and expensively imported Turkish cigarettes and hear the street vendors hawking their wares outside the cafes. It's great stuff and is envisioned with crystal clarity. This rich, exotic setting provides a background for Grimwood's story in which excitement and adventure are inevitable.
Ashraf Bey is very much a displaced person. The child of a travelling professional mother, his youth was spent in European boarding schools and on the planes that took him there. This wondering took him eventually to Seattle where he fell in with organized crime and found himself imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit. We meet him on the run having been sprung from jail and put on a plane. Not quite aware of all the facts, he travels to El Iskandryia to be told by an aunt he has never met that he's a member of the nobility and is to be married to the daughter of a local billionaire. Ashraf is very much his own man though (if you discount the cybernetic implant he carries around in his head, that is!) and rejects the proposed marriage. Soon after this the aunt winds up murdered and Ashraf finds himself the chief suspect.
Pashazade concerns itself with Ashraf's quest to both clear his name and solve the murder. Along the way, he must make some big decisions about his life and attitudes - a plot line that Grimwood spices up with the introduction of a nine-year old cousin of Ashraf's who with the death of the aunt, becomes his sole responsibility. The girl is clever and charming in a precocious way and her whole story arc is wonderfully handled.
Pashazade turns out to be basically a detective story. The science fictional elements seemed to me to be largely incidental as did the alternative historical premise in which Germany won the WW1 and the Middle East is still dominated by the Ottoman Empire - all of which has very little baring on this story. On the whole though, once it gets going (and it takes a little while) Pashazade is engaging enough and we want to know whodunit as much as the protagonist does.
There are some beautifully drawn characters, fantastic set pieces, including some truly wince-worthy violence and some really top-notch slight-of-hand writing and when it comes to winding up the tension, JCG is certainly no slouch. At the end of it all though, for all it's exotic ingredients, Pashazade didn't grab me as hard as I'd hoped. It is a well written and almost clinically executed novel, but it lacks the passion of the people that populate it. Still, it's a good read.