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Book Review: Effendi -Book Two Of The Arabesk Trilogy Jon Courtenay Grimwood

It's one of the world's dirtiest secrets. The only thing worse then a dirty secret is one that everybody is in on, but refuses to acknowledge. Maybe they hope that if nobody says anything, it will miraculously cease to exist. It's a nice thought, but I think the reality is that's it not politically expedient for anybody to do anything about it. Why else would world leaders get so hot under the collar about things far more trivial, but stay almost completely mute on the issue of child soldiers.

Occasionally, the press will run pictures of large eyed boys dressed in tattered rags with maybe a kerchief tied around their neck as uniform. Their malnourished bodies are dwarfed by automatic rifles, bandoliers of spare clips, and the requisite grenades worn like misplaced testicles on their hip; the testicles they probably won't live long enough to develop.

I wonder how many of them have the will anymore to realize if what they are wearing were sold on the open market, the money would have fed their families for weeks, if not months. Of course, that's irrelevant now, most are orphans as a result of the conflict that has conscripted them. With adults in such short supply, it's only logical that children are used as cannon fodder. There's always plenty more where they came from, they're easily manipulated, and best of all, nobody cares about their fate.
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Ashraf Bey, the new Chief of Detectives of El Iskandryia, the city that is the heart of the Ottoman Empire, knows that Child armies have existed since the horrendous "Children's Crusade" of the 12th century. He might reside in the fictional world of the Arabesk Trilogy created by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, but that doesn't stop there from being common ground. Corruption, political expediency, and the colonial imperialism of Europe and America are facts of life that he must deal with daily.

If anything, the latter is even more prominent in Ashraf Bey's world. Although the Sultans still nominally rule the Ottoman Empire, the treaty brokered by the Americans in 1916 guaranteeing its survival allowed the French, Germans, and of course the Americans "advisory" status. Over the years, elaborate dances of protocol and intricate backroom manoeuvres have been developed by the leaders of El Iskandryia to keep their "protectors" at bay. Nevertheless, in moments of crisis, real ingenuity is needed to prevent the vultures from descending.

And crisis is exactly what El Iskandryia finds itself in at the beginning of Effendi, the second book in the trilogy published by Random House through their Bantam/Spectra imprint. Someone is out to frame, or bring down in anyway possible the city's biggest industrialist/criminal. That Hamzah Effendi also happens to be the father of the woman, Zara Quitrimala, who Ashraf was supposed to have married as part of multi-million dollar deal negotiated by his late aunt, would be complication enough for the city's Chief Detective, if he didn't have the nagging feeling that he was falling in love with Zara.

When attempts to have Hamzah framed as a serial killer are foiled by Ashraf, information is "uncovered" implicating the industrialist as a war criminal. As a child soldier in the Sudan, he had conducted an ambush resulting in the deaths of over a hundred in an opposing army of children. Mysteriously any records of who had controlled either army have vanished, leaving Hamzah holding the bag more then forty years later.

Like book one, Pashazade, Enfendi is served up like the elaborate feasts described in the book. There are tastes that will make even the most jaded of literary palates salivate as Grimwood picks up where he left off in the first book. From the intricacies of the plot to the continued development of his main characters, and their relations with each other, his execution and timing are as impeccable as they were in the first book.

There's the matter of the burgeoning of love and trust between Zara and Ashraf being kept consistent with what we know of each of their lives and their characters to date. It has always struck me how many authors throw out carefully constructed character histories when a romantic interest is introduced. If anything that's when people are most vulnerable and their weaknesses most exposed, but Grimwood is one of the few authors I've read who seems to understand that and have his characters act accordingly.

Like a master pastry chef, Grimwood knows exactly where to draw the line at embellishment when it comes to both his plots and his characters. One of the easiest characters for him to go over the top with would be Ashraf's nine-year-old niece Hani. Kept locked up in her house until the death of her aunt she became a computer prodigy from lack of anything else to do with her IQ of 160. Let loose on the world she has become Ashraf's unofficial intelligence officer, as there's not a computer system built that's safe from her intrusion; breaking though encrypted site security is akin to the routine solving of Mensa puzzles as far as she's concerned.

It would have been easy for her to become one of those horrible, Hollywood type, children characters, that are all snappy answers and nothing else. Instead, she has just as much depth as the adult characters that surround her. She uses cute and precocious to her advantage with people who don't know her very well, and can carry off the haughty aristocrat when needs be. But that doesn't stop her from reacting with a child's enthusiasm when excited, or devastation when disappointed.

In Effendi Grimwood takes us deeper into the world of political intrigues surrounding the city of El Iskandryia and the Ottoman Empire, and it's a fascinating labyrinth. But, he never allows himself to get so overly caught up in developing that theme that he forgets the story he is telling, or the lives of the people who inhabit the story. Still, the issues he raises, from the question of culpability when it comes to the armies of children, to the morality of artificial modifications to the human body and brain are equally pertinent to our world, but are either ignored or dismissed.

If what happens as a result of that behaviour in the world of The Arabesk Trilogy is any indication of what we can expect here when we start yanking open those cans of worms, we may never find out who knew what when, but at least the innocent won't get blamed. I guess sometimes that's the best you can hope for in fiction or reality.

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