Review: Tariq Ali's Islam Quintet

I just finished A Sultan in Palermo last week. Which means I am totally up to date on all of Tariq Ali's excellent Islam Quintet books.

I read the Book of Saladin when I was home in Malaysia, partly because I was bored, partly because it was right there on my brother's table, and partly because I'd seen a Malay translation. I was deeply impressed by the Book of Saladin, and I jumped at the first chance I had to buy the rest of the books. What can I say? Outside the Lines was having a massive sale since they were moving.

The first thing I noted about the stories? How real Tariq Ali made the characters. Each of them had a story. Each of them had a past, and most of them have futures (except for the majority of the unfortunate characters in Shadow of a Pomegranate Tree), which do not necessarily require some dramatic out-of-this-world revelation... it's all part of life for them. Men and women, all of them have good sides to them, and all have bad sides, and sometimes one outweighs the other, but overall, it's the kind of characterization I hope to be able to give my characters.

And the characters! He doesn't necessarily pass the Bechdel Test, but the female characters, although products of their time, are such strong persons. They bear their harem imprisonment differently, deal with the same things differently. But he has such great female characters! The Stone Woman, the third book, is narrated, first person perspective, by a female character (the narrative occasionally shifts to other male characters, for the purpose of plot). Each of them are sensitively drawn. In the Book of Saladin, his narrator asks the question, "why do we shut half of our civilization out?" in response to a conversation had with the Sultan's favourite wife, Halima (a force to be reckoned with).

Also, some of his privileged female characters have sexual autonomy, agency, and they make sexual choices. He makes it very clear the difference between enthusiastic participation and coercion, and the characters who're deeply attracted to each other joyfully romp about in bed. It's nice to see strong female participation in sex.

The next beautiful thing is how well he blends fact with fiction - the Islam Quintet is set in the time period when the Islamic civilization first started its clashes with the West, and it deals with how the various characters grapple with the clash. Some convert to suit the conquerors. Some struggle to retain their Arabic identity despite the fractures among Arabs. Others aggressively fight against the invaders. All of them are wonderfully portraited (I want to say portrayed, but not really) - I could feel the dilemmas.

And he blends narrative with philosophy so well. It's hard to do that without sounding preachy, but because of his excellent blend of different characters, the discussions, topics of which range from philosophical, historical, social issues, become integral to the plot of developing the character's story and being part of the historical fragment of history to which they belong. So much good stuff.

My most favourite thing about his writing? The style. It's gorgeous. It's emotive, evocative, philosophical - I read the first few pages of the Stone Woman out loud to myself. It was amazing. It feels like an English translation of my favourite Arabic poets (mostly Sufi) and I admit, I thought his books were originally written in Arabic. (Well, I can't find proof they were, so...) How rhythmic his language is!

Now, what I don't like? Well, I would have liked it if his books didn't have the pattern of ending with a bloody massacre. All but one end with a horrible massacre of an entire household. Why? I mean, I know horrible shit like that happened during the period, but was it necessary? I know stories have to end somehow, but still. Extra pathos? I felt it, but still.

Also, while I know rape is horribly chronic within all civilizations, couldn't he have at least gone with one book within which one of the characters doesn't get raped? Not that the rape(s) detracts from the story at all and in fact, add to the horrible foreboding one gets reading the novels, but still.

Lastly, and this is less polemical, I felt the last book, Sultan in Palermo, was significantly poorer in quality than the others. Firstly, the pacing. Maybe I was reading it too fast, but it went by awfully fast. It doesn't make sense, because I took about the same amount of time reading the Stone Woman and I didn't have this issue. Secondly, it was really disjointed. I can't explain why, but it felt like a patchwork hurriedly put together.

Either way, this is still a series I'd recommend to anybody looking for a good historical fiction, or just damned good writing in general. I certainly don't generally read historical fiction, but this was well worth it.


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