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Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Earthlight paperback £6.99
review by Duncan Lawie
Jon Courtenay Grimwood's ability to sustain a plot has grown in the course of his SF career to the extent that he has now embarked upon a trilogy. Pashazade is also a new beginning in terms of both settings and character; though it is less clear whether this is a whole new history. Clearly, it is not our history. Something different happened to the course of World War I, allowing the Ottoman Empire to survive into the 21st Century, retaining influence at least as far as the Nile delta city of El Iskandryia, where this book is set. It is the perfect place for the kinds of stories Grimwood wishes to tell - a seething city ruled by the ineffable and the corrupt, subservient to distant powers and local passions. It has bright lights and broad, tourist-friendly boulevards and plazas beyond the souks and alleys which a 'Rough Guide' would tell us were the true city - and beyond them, the places which most natives would not choose to go. El Iskandryia is an Islamic, North African city straining towards the 22nd century and dragging against the 12th.
Grimwood's modus operandi is all over Pashazade, from the viciously detailed deaths and the nasty sex to name-checking Italian designers, German manufacturers and Japanese hi-tech. His central character begins as a void, rapidly wrapped in a black, smart-silk suit. The book combines the inward journey of this character, told through chapters of italicised flashback, with a tale of murder and mayhem in the back streets and fashionable parlours of El Iskandryia. The multiple personalities of the primary protagonist are displayed by the variety and variation in his name. To begin with, and throughout the flashbacks, he is known as ZeeZee. Over the course of the book, it becomes Raf and then Ashraf. This has the appearance of lazy character building; he does become three dimensional in the reader's eye, but this has much to do with the way the flashbacks flesh out his history.
Both ZeeZee's backstory and the events in El Iskandryia display Grimwood's jaundiced view of the world. The rich are bitter, the poor are wicked, the brave are stupid and death is cheap. The plot is centred on a murder investigation, but it would be virtually impossible to guess the order and end of events because too little is knowable in advance about the culture and environment. ZeeZee begins the books an apparent innocent of North African ways; incapable of comprehending the motives and attitudes of the people he comes into contact with. It is an entertaining ride, but the reader can do little more than hang on tight as the plot loops, leaps and dives. Looking back from the final pages, the story has somehow managed to pull together with a reasonable amount of internal logic and provides a fair sense of closure. Nevertheless, there are loose ends all over the place that we must hope Grimwood will draw out in the rest of the trilogy.
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