Author Arthur Phillips, who seems to invent himself afresh with every novel he writes, is always delightfully playful in his storytelling. His seductive debut novel “Prague” was actually set in Budapest, where a tightknit circle of young American expatriates wonder if they’ve chosen the wrong city for their early-1990s post-Cold War Eastern European adventures.
In “The King at the Edge of the World,” Phillips’ focus is on a Muslim physician from Constantinople who in 1591, while on a yearlong diplomatic mission to England on behalf of his sultan, finds himself separated from his loved ones, marooned from everything he knows and stuck in a place where the rules aren’t like any he’s followed before.
The villain behind Dr. Ezzedine’s predicament is one of his fellow Turks who conspires to donate him as a “gift” to Queen Elizabeth I, thus consigning the doctor for an unspecified amount of time to “a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth.” He must find a path for himself in a land where the queen is engaged “in a bloody and endless sectarian combat with others of her kind about some incomprehensible quarrel over their false religion.”
To an upstanding Muslim, unsurprisingly, these murderous enmities between Catholics and Protestants are pure nonsense, a teapot tempest between heretics.
The result, in Phillips’ agile hands, is a wily fish-out-of-water tale that turns our usual concepts about the glories of the Elizabethan age upside down. Its suspense kicks in when Dr. Ezzedine is pressured by his English hosts to serve as a spy in the court of King James VI of Scotland. His mission is to find out if James — the heir to the throne of the aging, ailing queen — is the Protestant he says he is or a covert Catholic.
The powermongers in Elizabeth’s court assume if James is Protestant, all will be well. But if he’s a Catholic, religious wars — they assume — will burst back into flame when he comes to power. An added constraint on Elizabeth’s devotees as they try to determine the facts is that they risk being accused of treason.
Dr. Ezzedine’s foremost problem is that James is entirely unreadable. The young king would rather play chess with his new Turkish friend or hear about Constantinople court life than indulge in church talk. James also likes to pass his time gamboling with “a Spanish boy who gives him counsel in bed” — the latest in a succession of such boys.
Chess and homoerotic high jinks, however, don’t shed much light on the Scottish king’s religious persuasion. “[W]eak in body and limb, swayed by the last person he spoke to,” James is not exactly a sparkling intellect, and attributing any sort of “doctrinal bedrock” to him seems a futile task.
Phillips outlines the stakes with flashbacks to the grisly religious persecutions that Catholics inflicted on Protestants in England’s then-recent past. But in such a dangerous world, how do you discern anyone’s true nature or core beliefs? That’s the novel’s pivotal question.
“The boxes inside a man will open if you are beloved, but that is very rare,” we’re told. “More commonly they feign to love you, the better to blind you from seeing truth. The boxes will of course open for you if they are forced, but then one risks damage to the contents. Boxes open for fear of being forced, and that is an improvement, but then you may not know if you have reached a true or feigned secret.”
For James and the doctor, these complications and caveats translate into a cat-and-mouse game where answers keep wriggling out of view.
“The King at the Edge of the World,” at its heart, is about a decent, principled, guarded man who finds himself in circumstances that unravel his very sense of self. While the doctor may be a cunning healer of physical ailments, he’s a total innocent on most other fronts.
“Even in moments of growling medical crisis,” Phillips writes, “there was always a procedure to initiate, an ointment to apply. But away from all of that, when life-and-death decisions were political or personal, not medical, he had only uneducated guesses with which to protect himself.” This wise, tricky novel, in which every character is “performing” in some guise or other while trying to get at some solid kernel of truth, whisks you into guessing games of the very best kind.
“The King at the Edge of the World” by Arthur Phillips, Random House, 265 pp., $27