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Monday, August 31, 2009

"The Father of Locks" by Andrew Killeen (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Andrew Killeen Website
Order The Father of Locks HERE

I recently found out about "The Father of Locks" by Andrew Killeen and the synopsis and reviews made me order it on the spot from the link above; I waited for it with bated breath and when it arrived I dropped everything I was reading and what a ride it was; though only 330 pages long it is filled with true wonders and paints a superb picture of the Golden Age of Harun al-Rashid of Arabian Nights fame; while the book is self-contained and solves its threads, I hope it will be continued with more adventures of the two main heroes.

"The Father of Locks" is a gem of a book - a must for any lover of Arabian Nights as myself, written pitch perfect in its style as stories within stories and taking place where else but in the Baghdad of Harun Al Rashid, but with a modern sensibility that fits the story to the end. While the plot despite its side-complications is fairly predictable, that is not the main attraction but the atmosphere, the stories themselves and of course the characters.

Most notably the title one, Abu Nuwas aka "Father of Locks" so named for his hairstyle, famous poet, lover of boys, girls and wine and luckily living in a time and a place that allowed the indulgent consummation of all at least as long as it was not too publicly scandalous. A somewhat reluctant agent of the famous Wazir Jafar of Arabian Nights fame and sort of court poet to Harun, Abu Nuwas' first meeting with the Caliph is just hysterical, though it almost turned tragic and as recounted later represents a perfect sample of how the book goes.

The narrator and other main character is a young Irish youngster who was sold by his father to Al Andalus traders for wine; he becomes a sort of surrogate child to the two Arab trader brothers, but later when their ship comes back to the Mediterranean and is boarded by Christian pirates, he is captured and cruelly raped by the captain. He barely manages to escape swimming after killing his rapist at night, only to be sold in slavery on the North African coast.

Luckily his passion for learning and ability to spin tales gets him bought by a kindly master Hermes with ambitions of training promising young boys to be sold
later at higher mark-up as entertainers and such .

Things turn otherwise and the young Ismail al-Rawia (The Teller of Tales) - as he calls himself - finally makes its way through the Caliphate to the legendary Baghdad where his most fond wish is to read some ancient Greek scrolls.

By (mis) chance he comes to the attention of Jafar and only his quick wit and poetry quoting saves young Ismail from mutilation for theft; the Wazir likes the boy's quick wit and in typical Arabian Nights fortune reversal he sends Ismail to Abu Nuwas as his apprentice to help him investigate a demon-like apparition in Baghdad. Abu Nuwas is in trouble with creditors as usual, while his tongue cannot help but make things worse so it's up to Ismail to save the day from the beginning...

Baghdad is in ferment too since famous visitors, namely an embassy from the far off Franks of Charlemagne is coming and Harun al-Rashid or more precisely his ministers, would like good relations with the upstart Frankish King since his immediate neighbors and rivals happen to be the Caliphate's two big western thorns, the Cordoba emirate where the former Ummayad dynasty - overthrown just a generation ago by Harun's grandfather - still rules and the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

The novel stands at about 300 pages and is divided into 24 "story chapters", with a prologue that will be important later, an epilogue that leaves us wanting more, a map of the world as seen through Arab eyes cca 173 AH (789 AD), a historical note and a very useful glossary of names.

While the book is technically narrated by Ismail, the "stories within story" format actually means that there are a lot of narrators from Abu Nuwas, to a soldier in the Caliph's army that introduced chess to the Chinese Empire, to a widow who moonlights as a witch, an empress and more. The geographical scope of the stories is impressive from Al-Andalus (Iberia) to China as is their narrative power.

ANALYSIS: What made "The Father of Locks" a book that not only exceeded my high expectations but was also a page turner with scenes that made me roll with laughter, but also melancholic and even philosophic ones?

First and foremost it is the narrative style, which is just pitch perfect Arabian Nights, from the Islamic names in all their complexity - there is an appendix helping the reader figure them out - to the lavish Caliphate descriptions, to the casual violence, explicit sexuality and superb (mostly original Arabic and Persian) poetry, all elements that are indispensable to any true rendition of the Arabian Nights.

The Harun al-Rashid Baghdad of 789, so lovingly described here is impressive; while there is poverty, violence, gangs and mischief, there is also a relatively free spirited atmosphere at least as long as the proprieties are publicly followed, the judges are independent, there are libraries and love of learning and of course poetry reigns supreme. The apex of civilization at the time, at least outside of the Chinese Empire of which we get a glimpse too in one of the tales.

Harun himself is both enlightened and capricious, cruel and generous while the enigmatic Jafar rules behind the throne; the scenes with the Caliph and Abu Nuwas are both hilarious and unforgettable and the vanity of the Caliph and his courtiers is shown through lots of small details, but is best seen at the royal hunt which needs to be read to be believed, being described so funnily and spot on...

In contrast, the uncouth Franks while great warriors and intriguers make a poor showing against their learned Islamic hosts, though their ambassador who is now writing the Hrouodland (later known as "Chanson du Roland") epic in Latin verse is quite learned too and has great exchanges with Abu Nuwas. And to top it all we have Abu Nuwas' "prophetic words" about the Roman (Byzantine) Empire dying slowly, but the West (ie the Franks) rising and how one day they will come to "claim our lands" and...

Ismail renamed Al-Walid (Newborn) by Abu Nuwas is endearing in his naivete, though he is quite resourceful as befits someone who learned to make his own way from childhood. While more at home with the gangs of teenagers from the city, he manages to acquit himself reasonably well with the high and the mighty, though the mysterious and beguiling Rus warrior-girl from the Frank delegation may be his undoing after all...

Overall just superb, a novel to enjoy and immerse in as well as hopefully the first of more to come featuring al-Rawia and Abu Nuwas.


DGfan30 said...

Great Review Liviu, this book sounds like a fascinating account of the Arab empire. Any idea whether the author intends it to be a standalone or part of a series?

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words - regarding sequels, I have no idea and I guess it depends on interest since there is ample scope and the novel is clearly set as a complete but to be continued one

For me the one puzzling thing is that until the Guardian Not for Booker contest and the enthusiastic words there from fans of the novel, I have not heard of it so it was probably marketed to the "mystery crowd" rather than "historical fiction/historical fantasy crowd" where I pay attention what is out both here and in the UK...

I definitely may be wrong about that though, especially that on the inside back cover, the book that is pushed as if you enjoyed "Father of Locks", you will enjoy this, is "Arabian Nightmare" by R. Irwin which I have had for some years now and that is quite far from a mystery novel..

DGfan30 said...

Thanks for clearing that up. Will be ordering this one soon.


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