No doubt hoping to extend the extravagant sweep-of-history-on-the-road theme of his previous novel (The Last English King, 1999), but falling short, Rathbone shifts to the Wars of the Roses, and a group of travelers from India who arrive just in time to be in the thick of the intrigue.
In 1459, the disfigured but widely traveled Arab trader Ali, already pushing 60, agrees to deliver a packet from a mysterious, soon-dead stranger he meets in an English inn to the royal family of Vijayanagara in southern India. Ali’s success earns him a return to the cold and rain of Albion, but this time with a prince of the family and his retinue in tow. The mission now: to track down the prince’s brother, long estranged and believed to be practicing a secret, forbidden religion somewhere in the north. As they head west, Ali discovers that the monk in their party is actually a sensuous young woman he met briefly before leaving India. Later, Uma seduces him in a Cairo bathhouse, and adds a teenaged English nobleman to her list of conquests as they prepare to cross the English Channel. The boy, Eddie, is one of those plotting to overthrow the king of England; finding a hostile reception when Ali and company make it to London, he is forced to flee. Ali and the others get caught up in the civil war as well, with the prince shut up in the Tower of London and Ali and Uma leaving town without him. When Ali falls ill and stops in a monastery to recuperate, Uma keeps going, looking for Eddie, but she’s thrown in prison, too, just as the two sides begin their series of bloody battles. Eventually, she finds her hot-blooded boy, and the prince finds his brother—but these reunions aren’t what they’ve been expecting.
The rambling seems more travelogue than novel, including, as it does, everything from theology to weather reports, and the notion of strangers in a strange land never quite catches fire.