Damascus by Jad Ziade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Damascus(The Syrian Revolution)by Jad Ziade
Damascus is going to be one of those novels that readers will learn to love and hate. I'm going to give it high marks for a number of reasons, but because of that I'm going to get quite brutal about the parts that I had trouble with. Spelling and grammar are not a problem with this novel though there might be some rules that were bent seriously. I liked the description and the language and appreciate that there is a lot of information packed into this novel, which might account for a tendency to push the reader back when it comes to character description. Oddly: though I felt that the narrative delivery of character description was handled in a style I felt has damaged the novel the characters themselves have a depth they manage to punch through all of that to give a richness along with the abundance in number of characters. This book has a huge cast and that alone helps account for the epic nature of the novel and the potential for the future in the series.
Also to be clear I was given a copy of this to read so I could deliver a review; so keep that in mind as a possible influence on my rating.
I felt the beginning of the novel was a bit slow. But I like that in my novels and I usually read a good chunk of the first chapter or first couple of chapters before I decide to persevere or not. Fortunately this novel has a fair amount to sample and it managed to catch my interest fully by the last two pages of the sample so if you stick it out to that extent you should have a fair idea if this novel is for you. Don't ask me why the thief and the whore characters were the ones to hook me. You have to read at least the sample to understand. Seriously though they are the first characters who are allowed to come to life in the story.
This novel is fiction and safe to say fantasy. It might be written in the same style as some old myths or fables and it even mentions Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights. There is an element of magic. And a great element of frustration in trying to pinpoint the era in which it is to take place. I'm going to take a shot at it and maybe just give Jad Ziade a clear picture of why he needs to be a bit more helpful in this regard. My best guess is that this is a story of an alternate Earth and alternate Damascus where there is -instead of the USA something called the Amreekan Empire. Not to be confused with that movie. It took me quite some time to figure out an approximate date which turned out for me to be some time possible around or after the year 2024 with a whole lot of anachronistic stuff going on.(That means that all bets are off about accuracy in cultural references.)
In this world we have the European powers and the Amreekan Empire both vying for the real-estate in Syria. We have the 'muslim' peoples and we have the Marxists both working somewhat at odds with those powers though the king of Damascus appears to be working with the Amreekans. The Amreekans appear to be a rough caricature of Imperialist Americans in that there emblem seems to resemble the USA Emblem and there is mention of Kentucky jam cake. Other than that the rest is purely fictionalized.
The anachronistic part comes in that the time of 2024 is coupled with the use of horse drawn carriages and swords and some for of mail-armor and no visible evidence of firearms that I can recall; and though there are warships those are not described and other modern War devices are not mentioned. The reason to pinpoint 2024 (assuming this alternate universe has some semblance of similar timelines) is that we have certain things drawing us up the time scale as they get mentioned. It starts with the emblem and the Kentucky jam cake and works into references to Roberts Rules which was published in 1876 and illustrator Edmond Dulac who lived from October 22, 1882 – May 25, 1953)and whose illustration career was around -1908-1939 and finally a reference to this being a century after V.I.Lenin died.
The beauty and the trouble with using a City like Damascus is that it has been around for such a long time and spans such a great history that it makes things more confusing when there is no direct reference to any dates and years in the story to give you a focus. As far as I can tell the rich detail of resources mentioned in the story all have probable historical reference to Damascus somewhere along the entire line and it is the details that occasionally are thrown out there that help pinpoint some notion of what year it is. Then it becomes bewildering because things look a bit odd for that era. Add to that the strong element of magic and the rather theatrical inclusion of ghosts that are seen only by one character and you have a sort of Paranormal, Magic,Alternate Historical Romance. (the other kind of romance)
It's difficult to pin down if this is a character driven story and who the Main Character might be. My best guess is that the Thief Ghazi might qualify but stylistically he doesn't show much improvement over the length of the novel, although we get to see how he developed into what he is today and he's a rather tragic figure. My next favorite character would be Soha the woman that Ghazi ends up framing for murder although Nadine, who gets a slow start begins to make leaps and bounds. Nadine might be considered an unreliable character in some ways, which is greatly affected by the leap she makes in changing before the readers eyes. As far as character description: If you read the sample you will note right away that there is a tendency in the narrative to lump character descriptions into a neat paragraph and then move on which works but feels a bit clunky to me as a reader.
There are some interesting political social ideologies expressed in the novel that I didn't always agree with, but it's not like I need to agree. The interesting thing is that Jad Ziade is able to express both sides and in this case sometimes what seems more like four sides in a way that makes most of the characters believable in their dogmatic pursuit of their individual truths. It does create confusion for me as a reader when pairings are made that seem at odds with each other;and left me wondering if they were becoming wishy washy or duplicitous in their natures.
A final caveat for those who like everything tied up nicely at the end. This is a series and I'm not sure how many novels there will be, but it means that some threads begun here are not entirely resolved by the end and there are far more questions then answers. I can only say that I was quite satisfied where it did end and am looking forward to reading the rest of the story.
I recommend Damascus to SFF Alternate reality fans and my friends who like to rip into cultural discrepancies that they perceive in these alternate realities.
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