by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The late George Alec Effinger firmly placed himself in North Africa with the trilogy of cyberpunk mysteries which focused on Audran Marid. Jon Courtenay Grimwood has set forth his own claim to the same region in Pashazade, the first of a trilogy set in an amorphous twenty-first century.
Grimwood focuses his attention on Ashraf el-Mansur, a man convicted of a murder he doesn't remember committing, now a fugitive after escaping from a Seattle prison. His escape aided by a mysterious benefactor, he finds himself in El Iskandryia, the city in which his family lives. In El Iskandryia, Ashraf discovers he has had a marriage arranged to Zara, the daughter of a social-climbing oilman.
Even as Ashraf is getting adjusted to his situation, which he finds repellant, his aunt, Nafisa, is found murdered and official suspicion points in his direction. In the manner of such novels, Ashraf finds himself trying to discover who murdered the woman and, incidentally, left him heir to the entire fabulous estate. While Pashazade could easily have become a detective novel or a mystery procedural, Grimwood manages to rise above those standards and makes Pashazade and examination of Ashraf's own life.
When the novel begins, Grimwood only hints at Ashraf's past, and it is not even clear that he is aware of his entire past. Throughout his investigation, he is reminded of different aspects of his own past with the hindsight than maturity brings to him. This is especially true when he looks at Hani, his nine-year old niece who was left orphaned and neglected following Nafisa's murder. In her, he finds the goal of ensuring that she doesn't follow the same path he did as a child. Ashraf’s struggle to come to terms with his own life is what moves the story.
Nominally an alternate history, Grimwood seems less concerned with the world he has built than the characters. While this creates a strongly character driven novel, it puts them into a sort of hazy world which never quite materializes. By making his world an alternate history, however, Grimwood is specifically drawing the reader's attention to his shadowy world. Being the first book in a trilogy, this twenty-first century Islamic-centric world may be better fleshed out in future volumes, but it is a glaring weakness in Pashazade which calls attention to itself.
As Effinger included elements of cyberpunk into the Budayeen, so, too, does Grimwood incorporate cyberpunk into El Iskandryia. While Effinger used cyberpunk almost for a humorous effect, Grimwood employs it in earnest as yet another hurdle Ashraf must overcome. The exact rationale behind Ashraf's enhancement, called the fox, is never made clear in Pashazade, again, something Grimwood may be leaving for explanation in future novels in the trilogy. However, within the context of this book, it leaves the reader more confused than intrigued.
While Pashazade is not a perfect novel, Grimwood manages to bring a reality to his characters as their past and personalities are revealed to the reader over the course of the novel. While Pashazade does feel complete in and of itself, it does whet the reader's appetite for future expansion of the ideas in subsequent books in the trilogy.