Synopsis (starting with a quote):
“Other shining, untarnished minds have come before us, lighting this path to understanding. But the sword of fear and ignorance has cut down their mortal forms, dissolving them as time does to all of us, to dust. Yet, their minds remain on paper. Their thoughts come to us in ink and parchment, packaged in tiny receptacles of light and wisdom.”
Spain, the dark years of Inquisition led by Torquemada. Nadira, a young Muslim slave girl and her owner, Sofir, a rich Spanish converso (so a Jew who conversed to Christianity) are one night accosted by some sailors (or rather pirates). These men ask specifically for Nadira; they brought with them a dying young man, which had been beaten by them to almost death. They think he doesn’t understand Spanish so they make Nadira speak her native Arabic to make him divulge his secret – the location of a certain book. The man is obstinate and doesn’t tell them anything so, after more beating, they leave him with Sofir, thinking he is dead. And he indeed dies after one more day but he also reveals to Nadira that a man named Henry has the book. He implores the girl to tell that to his little brother, Robin. Why was that book, any book in fact, worth such a sacrifice, though? Where is that Robin? One of these questions is solved very quickly.
Robert Longmoor, Baron Montrose of Scotland visits Sofir to collect the body of his elder brother, tortured to death. As he can’t read , he takes Nadira with him by force – she is fluent in several languages and he must find his brother’s book and read his letters. Although the girl remains a captive, her new master treats her with kindness and dignity. Because of him Nadira gets involved in a chain of adventures that exceeds her all expectations…she becomes important to many curious, rich and ruthless people. Will she find a worthy place in the world or remain the plaything of the powers that be? Will her strengths prevail over her weaknesses? What will she learn? Will Robert survive?
What I liked:
– The subject matter – it is about a hermetical book for heavens’ sake!!! A very old book from Egypt, written in several languages, most probably an ancient text, coveted by many alchemists! How not to adore such a premise? It reminded me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, one of my all time favourites! In fact I suppose the idea of an edible book was taken straight from that novel! Still I didn’t mind – not at all!
– The narration was quick-paced and lively as I like. The book managed to keep me interested till the very end.
– Plenty of knights in their prime, one pretty girl and no insta-love! No insta-lust either! A love triangle? Absent again! Well done and, as you see, it can be done!
– A kick-ass heroine who is not only of Arab descent but also a very educated woman who knows what’s good for her; despite being a slave, doesn’t want to follow her mother’s fate and remain despondent all her life; she takes difficult decisions but never ones which would be too stupid for her to live. By the way usually in such books it is a Saracen master and a Christian slave; here we have an Arab girl, a Jewish master and a Scotsman…not a bad mixture you must admit!
What I didn’t like:
– In short small inconsistencies. The main heroine, Nadira, once states that she wants to return home to Morocco and then she says she would like to go to Marrakech. Well, last time I checked these were two different countries and I am not sure whether they were known by their contemporary names in the 15th century. Oh well, you know me…incurably anal…
– It is not a flaw but it bugged me: Richard Longmoor was a kind of prominent scholar while his younger brother, Robert, couldn’t read an write at all…correct me if I am mistaken but if you were a Scottish laird who decided to spend some hard-earned coin on exclusive education, hiring a private tutor in the shape of a monk, you would make sure both of your precious sons got some necessary schooling… I would understand if Robert knew ‘only’ Latin or ‘only’ Old French/Norman but the fact that he could barely sign his own name left me perplexed…what did he do when Richard had his lessons? Chased skirts? Shot crows? How come his father didn’t intervene?
– I would like more three-dimensional baddies…
Despite some quibbles I did enjoy this book and I would love to read the second part of this series. Alchemy gives me always a powerful tug and this book was based on some alchemical texts…
Publisher: Knox Robinson Publishing
To Be published: December 8 2011
Review by Anachronist
Sent by the publisher in return for an honest review