The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips: A review

In 1591, Mahmoud Ezzedine is content in his role as the trusted doctor to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He has a wife whom he loves and a young son whom he adores and a profession that gives him satisfaction. He would happily spend the rest of his years in this life, but then he is jolted out of his existence.

The sultan receives a letter from Queen Elizabeth of England requesting his help in the religious conflicts - Protestant vs. Catholic - of the day. The sultan decides to send a diplomatic mission to England to assess the situation. It is rumored that Elizabeth is ill and may die. It is determined that the sultan's doctor should be a part of the mission. Much as he might wish to, there is no way that Ezzedine can refuse the assignment.

Ezzedine finds England dirty and underdeveloped as compared to the advanced Islamic society. His one pleasure in the country is getting to know and becoming friends with an English doctor with whom he shares his knowledge about various herbs as treatment for disease.

Eventually, the main body of the diplomatic mission returns home, an event to which Ezzedine had eagerly looked forward, but at the last minute, he is left behind. Even though he is nominally a free man, he finds himself being passed around like a gift from one "master" to another.

Years pass and Elizabeth's condition only worsens. She is old, ill, and childless. It is almost treason to dare to think that she might die and yet what will become of England if she does die? There is no clear heir to the throne.

The most likely heir is King James VI of Scotland, but there is a problem with that. Protestantism is ascendant in England since Henry VIII and although James professes to be Protestant, there is some suspicion that the claim is not sincere. His mother and his family historically were Catholic. He represents a break with that tradition - if indeed he is Protestant.

One of Elizabeth's spymasters, Geoffrey Belloc, a veteran of the religious wars, devises a plan for sussing out the truth of James' convictions. To achieve his purpose, he enlists Mahmoud Ezzedine, and once again Mahmoud has a new master. And that's how he ends up in cold, wet, primitive Scotland with the king at the edge of the world. If he succeeds in his task, he is promised he can go home again. He will do just about anything to be able to go home to his wife and son.

I found this book to be quite a treat to read. It is character-driven historical fiction at its best. The character of Mahmoud reveals a deeply humane and complex man and the narrative is engaging and intelligent. The book wrestles with questions of faith and identity. Why, for example, would people who all claim to be Christian, be willing to kill each other over different interpretations of a text? It is a mystery still after more than four hundred years. And, of course, such deadly religious conflicts continue in many parts of the world today.

My only real problem with the book is the ending. The reader hopes for, if not necessarily a "happily ever after," at least a positive resolution to Mahmoud Ezzedine's situation. But the ending is utterly ambiguous and unsatisfactory in my view. Other than that, it was a great read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 


 

Comments

  1. "Willing to kill each other over different interpretations of a text....." I doubt that we shall ever know why this continues to happen, and there is no end in sight. I think that Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins should be compulsory reading in high school!!

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    1. They would certainly give the students a broader perspective and something to think about.

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  2. The book sounds very interesting and original. I love the premise.

    I would guess the author had to do a lot of research where he had to dig into two societies.

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    1. I think he did in fact do quite a lot of research and one of the pleasures of reading his book is all the little details in the narrative.

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  3. It's always a treat for me to see an event, a character, a time, a place from a completely different point-of-view. I will look for this one.

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    1. Mahmoud Ezzedine was an enormously attractive character and it was helpful to view the world of the late 16th and early 17th centuries from his perspective.

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  4. 1591!! You were not kidding when you said you were concentrating on some historical fiction. I am glad to know you found it good and kind of curious about the ambiguous ending.

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    1. I do enjoy me some good historical fiction and this was that.

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  5. I had not heard of this novel ... but I like historical fiction. I agree endings are so important! they can make & break a book .... but glad you enjoyed this one otherwise.

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    1. This would definitely have been a five-star read for me but for the ending.

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  6. This sounds like a delightful book to read and I do love historical reads. I dislike 'utterly ambiguous' endings too. But it sounds like a good read otherwise.

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    1. It was a REALLY good book that I enjoyed a lot. I just wish the ending had been a bit more definitive.

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