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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips

Random House, 288 pages, $27

Warning: This review is littered with spoilers, especially if you don’t know much about the time period and intrigue of Elizabeth I, James I, and Mary, Queen of Scots. And there's also a major reveal about the fictional main character, Mahmoud Ezzedine.

“Victoria and Abdul,” the much-nominated movie starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, had an uplifting ending. British colonization is still an intriguing topic for movie makers and authors. Whether it is center stage or an element of background for a character, the uneasy relationship between conquerer and conquered plays well, drama-wise.

“The King at the Edge of the World” is not about colonization, although at the basis of the book is England’s feeling of superiority, even in the face of massive evidence that it is not the shining light at the center of the universe. The science, mathematics, and art of the Islamic world surpassed most of the English product of the late 1500s and the early 1600s, when “The King” is set. The cultures of the Ottoman Empire and the English kingdom were not equal. It is that inequality which begins Arthur Phillips’ tale.

Mahmoud Ezzedine is a well-regarded scholar and doctor in Constantinople. He advises and treats Sultan Murad and other members of the royal family. He has a loving wife and young son. His life is full of beauty, intellectual challenge, and happiness. This would be another book altogether if he were to remain in felicitous circumstances. This certainly is not that book. There is much unhappiness in store for Ezzedine, as he is forced to journey to the heathen, backward country of England as a representative of his country. Unlike “Victoria and Abdul,” there is no happy ending. Perhaps I am imposing my preference for knowing what happens on you, but I think, for instance, “The Diary of a Young Girl” is no less compelling because one knows Anne Frank’s fate.

Before I go further, let me ask myself if this book is in any form a mystery, thriller, or crime novel? Within actual elements of an historical period, Arthur Phillips has inserted a fictionalized world of Elizabethan spy-craft and palace intrigue. So, my answer to myself is: could be. And that answer is because there is much more about civilian and palace life in England and Scotland at that time, and a little about palace intrigue.

Protestant Elizabeth I is on her last legs. She has executed her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, is poised to become Elizabeth’s successor, but the big question that could produce either a war or a smooth transition is the question of whether James is Catholic or not. (Historical spoiler alert: James VI of Scotland does become James I of England.) Ezzedine’s story intertwines with the question of succession. 

Ezzedine has been left in England when the rest of his delegation return to Constantinople. Why? Because another delegate has his eyes on Ezzedine’s wife. (It is that blackguard who has arranged for Ezzedine’s appointment to the delegation to begin with.) What better way to get rid of a rival than to present him as a “gift” to the English queen. What should have been a month away from home becomes — sorry, another spoiler alert — years away.

After the initial story of Ezzedine, there is a lengthy segment about the life and times of Geoffrey Belloc, a palace spy. We are then shifted to a story of “Matthew Thatcher.” Thatcher’s life is limited by how he is not accepted by other members of society. People, high and low, shun the “Musselman” or a “Mahometan.” He is accorded no preeminent stature, despite his accomplishments as a doctor and naturalist. He even saves an Englishman, attends to various members of the palaces and manors in which he is housed, plays excellent chess, has memorized large swathes of Averroes’ work. Still, he is treated disdainfully by many, forced to sleep on rude bedding, and his dietary restrictions ignored. Phillips writes movingly of Thatcher’s situation. 

Thatcher is eventually recruited by Geoffrey Belloc. Thatcher is a stranger in a strange land. He observes English practices, but he has yet to fully embrace the rationale behind the country’s ethics and laws. He simply seems to be biding his time until death comes for him. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he will meet the Protestant God or Allah and Paradise.

The styles and voices of the two stories — Ezzedine and Belloc — were very different. Ezzedine was refined, even as he navigated a coarse world. Belloc was born in poverty and worked his way up to work for the Queen. It works but I would have preferred one or the other as the primary focus. This story did break my heart, especially in our current context in which cultures bat up against each other, often violently, around the world. Nothing changes, nothing stays the same.

The bottom line is I would recommend this book heartily. Its story, based in an historical time full of warts and pox, is all the more compelling because it is anchored in fact. Also, when the final crisis was worked through and the resolution revealed, I was stunned, saddened, impressed. When the dialogue is reached that references the title of the book, I was moved. (And Shakespeare makes an uncredited brief appearance.)

(Ed. note: 4-2-20 - edited, edited, edited)

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