You know that feeling you have when an author you love has a new novel out? When you scoop it up and get to reading, because previous novels have dazzled you? When you dig in with excitement and anticipation because you know it’s gonna be great? And then you get to the last page and realize it was. . . fine?
Arthur Phillips has written two of my favorite novels of the 21st century: The Egyptologist and The Tragedy of Arthur. Granted, Kim’s Favorite Novels may not be a highly exclusive list, but what I loved about both those books was the cleverness around which the pathos was wrapped. It’s unfair of me to expect an author to write the same type of novel every time; no doubt, if they did, I’d grow bored. But The King at the Edge of the World just didn’t resonate with me as much as some of Phillips’s other works.
In 1591, Muslim physician Mahmoud Ezzedine is sent to England to attend upon the Turkish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth’s court. A victim of political intrigue, Ezzedine is banned from returning home to his wife and son and must remain in England as doctor to an English nobleman. To make life easier, he changes his name to Matthew Thatcher and renounces his Muslim beliefs, professing to become a Christian (more specifically, a Protestant, since Catholics in Elizabeth’s England are as detested as Jews and Muslims). Ten years later, as Elizabeth’s life and reign appear to be nearing their end, Ezzedine/Thatcher is visited by Geoffrey Belloc (who is also going by a pseudonym), who recruits Ezzedine for a mission: Infiltrate the court of King James VI of Scotland and determine whether England, under James, would remain Protestant or revert to Catholicism, the religion of James’s wife and deceased mother.
Since Ezzedine’s arrival in England, he has been mystified by the animosity between Catholics and Protestants. He writes to his son (in letters never sent), “One is shocked to learn that Christians would kill one another not for land or power or money, but more often than not rush to slaughter one another from a shared inability to comprehend the nature of God. . . . They have their books, certainly. And yet they cannot agree even among themselves what it says! . . . They are frustrated at a problem whose solution eludes them, and so they vomit up wrath.”
Belloc’s argument that a Catholic James will usher in decades of bloodshed and slaughter like they have never seen does little to move Ezzedine. But Belloc promises Ezzedine the one thing he wants most in the world: Perform this service for the crown, and Belloc will ensure Ezzedine will be permitted to return to his home.
The most obvious theme in the novel is the paradox of religion: That, as Ezzedine points out in his letter to his son, Christians can tear each other apart for not agreeing on the finer points of their beliefs. If that were the only theme, though, I’d liken this book to the Crash of historical novels: Yeah, I agree with what you’re saying, but your premise is too obvious to be noteworthy. However, the larger, more interesting theme is about truth, and how anyone can be certain of it. Ezzedine is tasked with confirming that James is not a Catholic, but if absence of evidence doesn’t equal evidence of absence, how can he ever really be certain? Ezzedine and Belloc are both going by false names, but they are not the only false characters. James’s court is filled with sycophants who tell the King what he wishes to hear, flatter him, throw chess matches, and hide any truth that might be unpleasant. How can Ezzedine even be sure, in such a setting, that Belloc really can return him to his homeland? Yet he’s a man without any choices and, having been stripped of nearly everything that matters to him, very little will.
This novel certainly makes worthy points, and it does have an interesting, yet understated, twist towards the end. I enjoy Phillips’s writing, yet this novel seemed to plod slowly along rather than compelling me to finish. If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly Elizabethan history, I recommend giving it a read.