The Sword and the Well

Written by Ann Chamberlin
Review by Frank Flaherty

“No man ever does anything for a single reason,” insists battered old warrior Khalid ibn al-Walid at the beginning of Ann Chamblerin’s new book The Sword and the Well. “If he says so, he lies. And most of the time, most of the reasons are hidden, even from his own soul.”

The Sword and the Well is the concluding volume to Chamberlin’s trilogy by the same name (following The Woman at the Well and The Sword of God), winding up the life story of Khalid, who was renowned for never having lost a battle – either fighting for or fighting against the Prophet Muhammed. In Chamberlin’s complex and multifaceted epic, he provides the narrative focus for a far-flung story of forbidden loves, desert jinni, and the struggles of a newborn religion. Seen through Khalid’s eyes, the world of early Islam comes to life in a gallery of dynamic characters like the great poet az-Zibrikan ibn Badr or Musaylimah ibn Habib, called “The Liar,” and early opponent of Muhammed. Or Ayesha, the Prophet’s most favored wife – or the strange woman Sitt Sameh, who lives on the third floor of a turpentine seller’s shop and whose pivotal real identity we finally learn in this volume. Connecting many of the book’s most dramatic events is a twelve-year-old girl named Rayah, who is destined to marry into Khalid’s family. Thanks to generous expository aids, The Sword and the Well can be read separately from the previous two volumes, but it works its considerable magic best when read in conjunction with them. The trilogy forms an impressive fictionalized portrait of an era little known to non-Muslim readers. Recommended.