Chamberlin (The Sword of God, 2012, etc.) delivers the last volume in her trilogy of historical novels tracking the tumultuous lives of three main characters and a cast of thousands as Muhammad’s folowers spread his religion before and after his death.
In the seventh century, yin and yang and monotheism and polytheism fight it out in the desert as the Muslim religion spreads. Khalid ibn al-Walid abu Sulayman, a brilliant general who at first resists Muhammad but then converts to become his “sword of god,” fights his way through Arabia but meets a tragic end; the mysterious Sitt Sameh (aka Sejah bint al-Harith), Khalid’s “bastard daughter,” clings to pre-Muslim ways, resisting the spread of the new religion and fighting against Khalid; and Rayah, Sameh’s 12-year-old daughter, journeys from girlhood to womanhood and superficially embraces the new religion, marrying a Muslim and carrying his child while keeping the faith with the old ways from “the Time of Ignorance,” including her magical healing powers and a jinn as an alternate husband. Along the way, the novel plumbs family feuds and secrets—including the near-matricide of Sejah by Rayah and the shabby treatment of Khalid by his rival and distant cousin, Omar ibn al-Khattab. Chamberlin has woven a colorful if complicated tapestry chronicling the difficult birth of a new religion. Her evocation of the harsh world of the desert, its peoples and its spiritual aura is at times brilliant and beautiful. Her insights into the differences between men and women are often acute, though they are sometimes skewed by feminist dogma; in this tale, the only truly sympathetic male is a eunuch. Parts of the novel are plodding, and its numerous narrators and disparate strands will make it hard going for many readers. And despite a helpful dramatis personae and family tree, the yarn is made harder to understand by its throngs of characters with complicated Arabic names (sometimes belonging to more than one person). By spreading the limelight over so many characters, Chamberlin’s novel diminishes insight into each.
At times lyrical, at times puzzling and frustratingly opaque, and at times as dry as desert dust, this novel is nevertheless worth the trek for those interested in Middle Eastern history.