Monday, May 3, 2010
Picking up where her first book, The Jewel of Medina, left off, Sherry Jones invites us back into the life of A'isha bint Abi Bakar, the prophet Muhammad's favorite wife and child bride. Following Muhammad's death from the Medina fever, his followers are left bereft. When A'isha's father Abu Bakar steps into the role of Khalifa (spiritual leader of the Muslims), things are far from peaceful because various factions are not satisfied with this solution. Unhappiness and rumors rage throughout the camp, leaving A'isha caught in the middle. The unrest grows when tragedy befalls her father, for there are many wishing to replace him. One of the hopefuls is A'isha's hated nemesis, Ali, who was once a close companion to Muhammad. A'isha will do almost anything to keep the position out of Ali's hands, though she soon comes to find that the others jockeying for position are no more palatable. As various men try their hands at being Khalifa, rage erupts in the camp and it is up to A'isha and Ali to prevent their struggling religion from being destroyed by war, greed, and nepotism. Both intricate and timely, The Sword of Medina painstakingly exposes this most pressing and engulfing time in history.
Just over a year ago, I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing Sherry Jones provocative and thoughtful historical novel, The Jewel of Medina. Though I mostly enjoyed the book, I harbored questions as to the legitimacy of the prophet Muhammad's intense love of women. Sherry, eager to share her collected information regarding this subject, wrote me a beautiful post addressing my question and helped me to more fully understand Muhammad's interest in the fairer sex. I was both surprised and honored to hear from her again a few months ago when she asked me if I would like the opportunity to read and review her next work in the series, The Sword of Medina. I accepted eagerly because I was very interested in finding out what had transpired with A'isha after Muhammad's unexpected death, and I was pleased to become enmeshed in the continuing saga of A'isha Bint Bakar.
First of all, I felt that Sherry did a magnificent job of highlighting the political and religious turmoil that raged throughout Muhammad's encampment after his death. There were a lot of very unhappy people plotting and scheming during that time, and the author did a great job of canvasing the many groups who had their own ideas about the future of Islam. The tension that she created throughout these sections was palpable and it was clear to me why A'isha was so troubled by the direction that Muhammad's legacy had taken. A lot of A'isha's time and energy went towards smoothing the ruffled feathers of the people and trying to stay one step ahead of the roiling mass of unhappiness that was spreading over the camp. I felt that A'isha was torn between the desire to keep her people happy and her overwhelming urge to prevent Muhammad's wishes for his people to be tainted.
I also thought that the relationship between A'isha and Ali was written with precision and believability. Ali harbored much anger and resentment towards A'isha, just as she did for him, but there were moments when the ideals and beliefs of the two were very similar, which highlighted the contradiction between their feelings and their beliefs. Towards the conclusion of the book, A'isha's eyes are opened in regards to Ali and she is able to see that his wishes are not so alien from her own, a fact that does much to quell her fear for the uncertain path of Islam. I liked the scenes between these two characters because I felt that both characters were able to admire each other privately while still being headstrong and clashing every time they interacted, which gave a profound depth to their relationship.
In the first book, much of the action centered around Muhammad's wives and their struggles amongst themselves for peace. This book was much more focused on the path that Islam took after the death of its founder. There was much political intrigue in this second book, which I appreciated because it gave me a frame of reference and an insider's peek into the problems that plagued a religion without a strong leader. There were some very developed battle scenes in the book as well, which served to highlight the Muslim's quest for acceptance and honor among tribes of non-believers. The crux of the battle towards the conclusion of the book sharply delineated the power struggle between A'isha and Ali, and was, I felt, a very moving conflict between the two.
The only small quibble I had with the book was the abundance of characters that jostled for space among the story. There was a very large cast of characters, which I felt was a little overwhelming at times, but I really don't see how any of the players could have been excised from the story without creating a gaping hole in the narrative. At times it was a little confusing to keep all the players straight, but as I became more in tune with the story, it got a bit easier for me to sort things out.
This was a very satisfying conclusion to the story that I had read a year ago and I think Sherry created a very precise and detailed story that many readers have had little exposure to. If you enjoyed The Jewel of Medina I think that that this book would make a great read for you, though I might not advise picking up this tale without having read the first. I enjoyed this second book greatly and think that for those curious about the rise and spread of Islam, these books would make enlightening reading.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.