The civilised world has been rocked by a sudden surge of terrorism. Extremism has proliferated even in the countries in the shores of the Mediterranean, which are meant to be that bit more sophisticated than their hinterlands. Suicide bombers spread terror in the streets of previously buzzing cities. Ashen-faced religious leaders condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their faith. Sound familiar? But this isn’t the world as we know it. Harry Turtledove takes us into an alternate reality in which Islam, not Christianity, became the dominant religion of the world in the medieval period. Now, progressive, modern and comfortable Muslim nations look warily at their Christian neighbours, and two brilliant investigators are dispatched to the dangerous streets of Italy in an effort to nip the terrorist threat of the Aquinists in the bud.
Khalid al-Zarzisi and his investigative partner Dawud ibn Musa differ in many things. Khalid is Muslim; Dawud is a Jew. Khalid is suave and urbane; Dawud gives the impression of cheerful chaos. Khalid is divorced; Dawud is happily married. But they share a deep concern to stamp out the wave of extremism which promises to burst out of Europe and sweep across the whole Muslim world. The question is, how? As representatives of the Maghrib – the Islamic commonwealth – Khalid and Dawud have been sent to discreetly find out how matters lie. Does the Pope, Italy’s spiritual master, have any sympathy with the Aquinists? What’s the attitude of Grand Duke Cosimo, the peninsula’s secular ruler? How can the Maghrib stop the Aquinist terrorists from destabilising the current, liberal, secular regime and potentially opening the gates for a new religious ruler who will drag Italy back into the Jahiliyah – the time of ignorance?
While this is a thriller – a race against time to foil the Aquinists’ information network and to prevent too many further atrocities – you get the feeling that Turtledove isn’t really interested in the action so much as the concept. The tension is cranked up, only to fade away in the course of a rather abrupt and tidy ending. But the world-building is superb. The book is essentially a study of what the world would be like if Islam had grown to dominate, rather than Christianity. The intellectual advances of Muslim scholars in the medieval period would have advanced; the world would use Classical Arabic, not English, as its lingua franca; the international style wouldn’t be business suits, but robes and keffiyehs. America (‘the Sunset Lands’) would have been conquered by Muslim, not Christian, forces (leading to names such as ‘Arkansistan’, which made me smile). Muslim women are liberated, treated as equals, given full opportunities, while Christian women struggle to make their voices heard in a faith which has made little progress since the medieval period.
So much emphasis is placed – subtly and not so subtly – upon this exchange that it can be difficult to follow the story through it. I found it very engaging as an intellectual experiment but perhaps less so as a novel. Like all spy stories, there’s a mole who must be winkled out; a wisecracking sidekick; a swift and unconvincing romance with a stock smart-but-beautiful woman. Yet Khalid and Dawud, in particular, are warm and rounded characters whom you do feel that you’ve grown to know, even if the peripheral cast members remain somewhat two-dimensional. I wouldn’t be averse to reading more about them in the future. And I enjoyed reading a book in which Islam is shown as the religion of peace and process and scholarship – which was the case for so many centuries – and in which we’re shown that, had the world been only a very little different, Christianity might have generated exactly the same divisions, resentments and violence that we now associate with Islamic extremism. Is this ‘message fiction’? Well, yes, I think it probably is. But it works.
I have three volumes of Turtledove’s Misplaced Legion series on my TBR pile, though these are closer to fantasy than the alternate reality covered here (I believe?). Yet I know he’s written other novels which experiment with similar historical ‘what-ifs’ – I think there are some novels exploring what would have happened if Byzantium hadn’t fallen, for example. These questions can be fascinating, and I enjoyed this book for its thought-provoking gusto, even if I did sometimes wish that the story itself had felt a little stronger. In a world where, increasingly, we come to fear what is different for no good reason – other than it is different – Turtledove’s novel is a timely reminder that the world can be very different in its fundamental basis and yet remain, tragically, or reassuringly, very recognisable. A clever and worthwhile book.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review