The King at the Edge of the World

Written by Arthur Phillips
Review by Fiona Alison

In 1591, by order of the Sultan, chief physician Dr Ezzedine travels to the Elizabethan court, regretfully leaving behind wife, son and contentment. Confident of a speedy return, he is perplexed when Sultan Murad gifts him to the English queen. Subsequently he is given by the queen to her advisor Baron Moresby, by Moresby to James VI, and by James back to Elizabeth. Naturally the reasons for these generous gifts represent considerably more than their philanthropic packaging might imply.

By 1601 the religious strife of the 1530s to ‘60s has been largely quelled, but the unstable succession threatens the peace. Twisting allegiances and deadly intrigues play out, as England is preyed upon by northern families, Spanish, pope, and French Catholics alike, all bent on its destruction. Should James exhibit even the slightest symptom of the Catholic disease, the streets will run red once again. Geoff Belloc, experienced game-player in the theatrical and spy arena, is charged by Elizabeth’s spymaster to manifest a certainty that James’s every sinew is Protestant. Dr Ezzedine, now a theoretical Christian (?), is recruited to infiltrate the Scottish court and return the certainty to Belloc. No easy task! Pushed like a pawn around a chessboard, ironically the promise of a chess game finally propels Ezzedine into the royal presence, where he meets a young king plagued by uncertainty.

This is an absorbing, plot-filled read. Acceptance of the One True God provides thoughtful comparison to the decades of blood-drenched Catholic/Protestant argument. Allusions to Constantinople’s sun-baked, azure sea/sky and intellectual supremacy soar over England’s cold, wet fog and weak, primitive people, providing metaphoric colour. Even the satirist, John Wilmot might find a wry smile for the book’s cover image. Ezzedine is masterfully portrayed as he philosophises his way to banishing his memories, and puzzles the impossible. Recommended.