The Arabesk Series
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
When I first see Ashraf al-Masur, it is through Felix Abrinsky’s eyes.
Felix is in a place with architectural features I’m not familiar with, in a city whose name I don’t know, in a part of the world of which I know nothing. There is a woman, dead in an unusual way. She is connected politically in ways I don’t understand. The only thing I know for sure is that where we are, it’s warm and slightly muggy.
What could possible anchor me, in this first chapter, these first eight pages, until I begin to understand my surroundings and can intuit the meanings of things?
Well, there’s Felix; Felix the seriously over-weight, disgraced ex-LA cop, now Chief of Detectives of El Iskandryia; Felix, the
Jew Catholic in a city of Muslims, the not-so-secret drinker, the serious investigator, who dismisses the man he’s with as a “silksuit.” Those of us who read detective novels understand Felix immediately. I might not approve of Felix. I wouldn’t want him dating my daughter, and I certainly wouldn’t loan him my car, but if the nightclub were on fire, Felix is the one I would follow, because I know he would get me to safety.
Felix is also an outsider in the city, an adapted outsider, so he knows what the newcomer, like me, needs to know right away to navigate this mysterious world.
I’m writing, again, about the suspension of disbelief. Perhaps more precisely, I’m writing about the intersection of world-building and the reader’s suspension of disbelief. About a month ago I posted something kvetching about a book that did not invite me to suspend my disbelief, and in fact, slapped me every time I tried. That encouraged me to look around for someone who actually did it well. Enter Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and the Arabesk trilogy.
In Grimwood’s world, the Ottoman Empire never collapsed, Woodrow Wilson brokered peace between London and Berlin in 1915, World War II never happened, and the major world powers seem to be Germany, France, the USA and the Empire. This alternate timeline stretches a few decades beyond current time, but in terms of fashion and technology, there’s nothing the science fiction reader won’t recognize. It’s the social, political and economic things that are different, and the murder of an impoverished but highly socially connected woman, who has made enemies of one of the world powers, and introduced a complete stranger she claims is the secret son of the Emir of Tunis, strikes every single social, political and economic chord.
Felix, my host in the first chapter of Pashazade, is not a major character. Ashraf al-Mansur, or “Raf,” or “ZeeZee,” the silksuit Felix left standing in a doorway while he investigated the crime scene, is the main character. I hate to say hero. Raf, in the first half of the first book, is opaque to the reader, and largely opaque to himself. He either is the secret son of the Emir, or a petty criminal, or a murderer, or all of the above—or, he could be something completely different. By Chapter Two the most compelling thing I know about him is that he talks to a fox that lives in his head. Yeah. Okay. Like Felix, I kind of like him in spite of myself, don’t quite trust him, and can’t figure him out.
Grimwood has me right where he wants me.
The overarching story of the three books is Raf’s search for his identity, both in a psychological, spiritual way and in the strict literal sense. At the street level, so to speak, Raf is confused about who, exactly, his father is, since his mother said he was a Swedish backpacker she took up with for a few days. The bigger secret of Raf’s identity—not so much what he is as what he has been turned into—is murkier. The best theory about Raf’s existence is postulated by the isolated, rebellious, scary-smart nine-year-old girl Hana who may or may not be Raf’s niece. Raf, she decides, is a Son of Lilith, either a djinn or a vampire, and if he can disguise himself as a human for seven years, he will be allowed to become truly human.
You mustn’t think from that assessment that Hana—or Hani, as she prefers—doesn’t like Raf. She does. One metric in the judging of Raf as a worthy or unworthy character is his treatment of Hani, and he treats her right. Her trust in him is well-placed, even when his actions make no sense.
There’s still this different world to adjust to. Early in Pashazade, Grimwood gives us an info dump, as Raf indulges in a discussion about his imaginary doctoral thesis concerning alternate timelines. What if Wilson hadn’t stopped World War I? What if the Prussian Empire had dissolved in 1923? Grimwood makes this entertaining by setting the conversation with someone who is completely, if quietly, shocked by these suggestions and thinks they border on treason. Hamzah Quitramala is completely a product of his culture, and he doesn’t indulge in this sort of fantasizing. This foil to Raf’s hypotheticals—which are spelling out for the reader what did happen—makes this world more realistic.
Basically, this abstract discussion gives us just enough to accept everything that happens in the rest of the series—or just about everything. Close enough.
As I read, it was the characters who swept me through the elaborate city and the harsh, beautiful landscapes. Whether it is Hani, who comes to realize just how much like her uncle she is, or Zara, a rebellious and damaged daughter; the Khedive, the hereditary ruler, struggling, at seventeen, to find his own voice among the powerful older men who “counsel” and protect him; Avatar, pirate DJ and Zara’s illegitimate half-brother, or Raf himself, I cared enough about these people to stick with them through all three books. I turned the pages wondering what would happen next. What is Hani, exactly? Will Avatar be accepted by his father? Will Zara ever be happy? Will Raf survive? Even the story of Raf’s annoying mother Sally, who I never cared for, kept me turning the pages. And what about the fox?
And Felix? Felix, the only truly American voice in the book, is not a main character in any sense, but he becomes, in a way, Raf’s conscience and a mentor for Hani. His main mission, to introduce us to the strangeness, and then to stay with us until we are sure it’s safe, is executed perfectly.
So here’s one way to get the reader to suspend disbelief and enter your imaginary world; give them a tour guide they trust.