Muslims contend with pagans in this historical novel of ancient Arabia.
In this second part of The Sword and the Well trilogy, Chamberlin (The Woman at the Well, 2011, etc.) explores the rise of the Prophet Muhammad and the conflict that arises as his brand of monotheism begins to usurp traditional Arab polytheism. Chamberlin relates this story through two main characters—the warrior general Khalid ibn al-Walid and the 12-year-old Rayah, a blue-eyed girl with supernatural powers inherited from her mother and grandmother—taking the reader across time as monotheists and pagans contend for power. For polytheists like Rayah, al-Walid and others, the desert swarms with jinn, shaytans and other gods; Muhammad and his adherents smash false idols, including a fertility god’s giant phallus, and make converts with both words and swords. Blood feuds, romantic interests and political intrigues swirl through many pages, but those expecting extended feuds and quarrels will be disappointed. Although the book can be as vivid as a desert sunset, it can also be as dry and listless as the desert at midday. The story often plods until it culminates in an epic battle, and even then, some scenes may seem overwrought, as when a woman bites the “warm, quivering liver” of a vanquished foe “while the blood coursed down her ample bosom.” Chamberlin weaves together many threads here, often skillfully, with solid research to back up her fiction, but the lyrical passages alternate with occasionally stilted dialogue (“Take that, you wretched dog’s son!”). Some readers may be derailed by the large cast of characters with difficult-to-pronounce Arabic names, the many unfamiliar, undefined Middle Eastern terms; a dearth of characterization and frequent shifts between points of view may add to the confusion. Chamberlin includes a list of prominent characters and a map, but a glossary and a more complete character list might have been useful.
An intriguing but often tough trek through another place and time.