Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nile Shadows by Edward Whittemore

For comments on books one and two of The Jerusalem Quartet, Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker, please follow the respective links.

Nile Shadows represents a departure from so much that has previously been established in the first two novels of The Jerusalem Quartet. Whittemore ceases to obsess with the vast network of character relationships and connections, wandering narrative, and perhaps the biggest change of all, he leaves his setting--Jerusalem--behind. What's gained is a bit awkward and perhaps more conventional of a novel, but these incentives come at a cost to pre-established characters and to a degree, all that made the first two books of the series as remarkable as they are.

It is difficult to overstate the power of the novel not taking place in Jerusalem. The novel's move to Egypt is permanent and there is a sense of starting over. O'Sullivan Beare is brought into Cairo by a mysterious trio to do some investigative work with his old time friend, Stern. We have to adjust to Cairo just as O'Sullivan Beare does and it is a stiff experience. We never quite get used to it and things always feel a bit out of place, even for an underworld pro the likes of Beare.

Contrary to the previous entries in the series, Nile Shadows has a strong traditional story arc and it is spelled out for us on the first few pages. The novel opens with the climax and then backtracks in an attempt to make that climax resonate strongly with the reader after the fact: a difficult proposition that many have tried before and a device that I've never been a fan of.

As we never saw the milieu of characters lives in the first two novels Beare is brought in just to discern that in Stern's life. It seems that Stern, a born Jew, has gotten himself heavily involved in some dark business concerning World War II and there are multiple intelligence agencies that would like to know exactly what he has been up to. There is a false plot involving a stolen code that explains all of Rommel's success in North Africa and what has been bought and sold for the Germans to obtain such a code, but the real story is much more personal. Beare, and a handful of Stern's other friends, know that Stern's time is very limited. He is involved too deeply in both sides of the war efforts; too valuable and too much of a liability to be left alive by all those who value him. Before his life is prematurely cut short, those who care about him make it there most earnest desire to communicate to Stern how much he has meant in the lives of so many.

Stern, being an idealist and dreamer who once outlined the constitution and governance of a Levantine nation where all could live in peace and prosperity, is struggling to find value in his life as his goals have been so exponentially scaled back. David and Anna Cohen who almost view Stern as a father, the horrifically scared Bletchley, and Liffy, whose acting ability make for a disturbingly good spy all try in there own way to help Stern see the fruits of his labors. While the new characters all feel real and are well fleshed out the problem is the pre-exsisting ones never seem to mesh.

Stern, Beare, and Maud (yes, Maud is in Cairo as well working for an intelligence agency) standout perhaps too much at the expense of the story. Stern never feels concrete. We learn of his past and what he has been up to through all the novel's new characters who in some way or another are connected to his life. Sympathy comes easy however he remains aloof and on the fringe of the narrative; never taking direct action and only fleetingly making tangible appearances. O'Sullivan Beare perhaps absorbs the worst of the damage as it is he that the novel follows in the search for clues as to Stern's past. While his endearing sincerity and openness remain, Beare feels like little more than a vehicle for other characters exposition. Beare is at the whim of Liffy, Amhad, and others only so they can preach their life's philosophy's and fill in the gaps of Stern's life. This marginalization of one such as Beare hurts but doesn't have the overall undermining affect on the novel as one would think. Beare is the focal point of the story but plays little more part than a prop. Maud's moments seemed to be little more than incidental fan service, though they felt good and I loved everything shared in her scenes they did little to advance the story of the novel.

In gaining a straight forward traditional story presentation Whittemore abandoned the freewheeling nature of his previous novels and things become a bit mundane. There's Waterboys and Monks (the two largest espionage groups in Egypt), hand grenades and tanks, Churchill's secret flagship and wild parties thrown by a living mummy but the dream like atmosphere that made the previous entries as exotic as they were have faded like the past novels main characters. Gone are Wallenstien, Haj Harun and most noticeably Jerusalem, and so to is the sense of wonder that they created.

It's perhaps the most accessible novel Whittemore had written, one that would still benefit from re-reading, but overall much easier to grasp. Nile Shadows is satisfying on all levels but feels more like a remnant of previous entries and what perhaps should have been the true beginning of something else.


Marion said...

You are doing major reviews these days! I've been participating in nanowrimo and that's taken up most of my writing energy, but I did manage to read Felix Gilman's _Half-Made World_. If you are still feeling unsatisfied by traditional fantasy you might want to check it out.

Chad Hull said...

Half-Made World is on the list. I've heard a lot of good things about it from a lot of different places.

I've been cheating on the reviews. The Whittemore books were read and reviewed a while back. I didn't want to post any reviews until I finished the series. Hopefully I'll get the last one up this weekend.