Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Arthur Phillips has really been exploring his abilities as an author by diving into different genres since his first novel, and in The King at the Edge of the World he transports us into the realm of historical fiction. Taking place in 1601, we follow a web of courtly intrigues anchored around the impending death of Queen Elizabeth I, the leading candidate to her succession King James VI, and Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician who stayed behind from the Ottoman Empire’s last diplomatic visit.
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Arthur Phillips Displays the Crown of Uncertainty
We often picture the Renaissance historical period as being characterized by its grace and elegance, the opulent sense of fashion, and of course, all the artistic achievements it gave birth to. However, as is often the case in history, our knowledge of the period has been curated over time to be more surface-level, and consequently, erroneous. People’s traditional ambitions, lust for power and hatred for difference never went away, and even the charming renaissance had its fair of death and plotting, as we’re about to see in The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips.
The story begins by taking us to the year 1601, a turbulent time when Queen Elizabeth I is clearly dying, even though it is forbidden to even think of a life without her. Nevertheless, her potential successors begin to line up one by one in the shadows, eager for their opportunity to try and seize the reigns of power. The leading candidate, so to speak, happens to be King James VI of Scotland, only some questions are circulating as to his true religious beliefs and intentions. Though he claims to be a Protestant, he may secretly be a Catholic, and thus threatening to resume the religious wars.
Ultimately, the question arises: what does King James VI actually believe? The mission falls into the hands of one Geoffrey Belloc, a veteran warrior from England’s religious battles, and he begins to concoct a plan to discover the true nature behind England’s next potential monarch. As it happens, he finds the perfect man to help him do the job, a complete outsider in Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician who stayed behind after the Ottoman Empire’s previous visit. He is willing to do anything to return home to his family, and this makes him Geoffrey’s most valuable asset in the quest for a truth which might forever remain uncertain.
Wealth of Historical Context in The King at the Edge of the World
There are many possible approaches an author can take to writing a historical drama, but personally I feel there always needs to be a good dose of reality to it for the plot to be engaging and believable. After all, if an author begins to subvert history as they please, we, the readers, are left with little to no rules according to which we can understand the world, the characters, what’s possible and what’s at stake. Personally, I found The King at the Edge of the World to have excelled in terms of realism, and in more ways than one.
History is written by the future, and therefore distorted at its start.― Arthur Phillips, The King at the Edge of the World
Needless to say, a few elements such as the dialogue have been modernized for the reader’s convenience, and I have absolutely no problems with that. Otherwise though, it seemed to me Phillips did quite a bit of research on the traditions, mores, values and culture of the time in general. While I can’t claim to be a historian to any extent, I can say the author’s depiction of England during the Renaissance did fall in line with the historical details I am familiar with through research.
From the very start I felt completely immersed in the world, largely due to the extent of the details we are treated to about how life was in those days. While he never deviates from the main story for too long for these purposes, Phillips does take the time to describe some scenes from daily life we might have been able to see back then, and together they all form a very complete and descriptive picture of the world our story takes place in. Ultimately, any work relating to history must be able to draw you into said history to have any hopes of capturing your attention, and I found this novel did an excellent job of that.
The Infinite Complexity of the English Court
While the author certainly aims to educate us, the readers, about England in the early 1600s, rest assured the vast majority of this novel is dedicated to developing the plot, which has quite a few complexities to it. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say it could get confusing in some parts if you haven’t been paying close attention. There aren’t a million characters nor plot lines, but the interplay between the people we do have is often shifting, covered by multiple layers of ambition and deceit.
The highest task of intelligence: to imagine a future and then smooth its approach.― Arthur Phillips, The King at the Edge of the World
Our main tour guide through this web of intrigue, Mahmoud the physician, adds quite a few interesting elements to the story, if a tiny bit fantastical… but of course, a work of historical fiction is free to have some of said fiction in it. Relatable for being an outsider just like us, he is a likeable gentlemen from the start, an acute observer we can always rely on, and ultimately, a rather useful chess piece with a mind of its own. He is the thorn in every perfect plan’s side, and overall captivating to follow on his unique quest of political espionage.
|288||Random House||Feb. 11 2020||978-0812995480|
As far as the plot and its development go, I found it a real pleasure to be able to meet all the characters up close and get familiar with their goals and plans to achieve them. You can never really count any of them out of the loop until the end, and there were more than a few moments where some of them surprised me with their clever manoeuvres and the plot twists they carried with them. On the whole, considering how many different character arcs and plots intersect with each other, I have to give credit to Phillips for his ability to keep it all cohesive and in perspective.
The Final Verdict
The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips is a masterful piece of historical fiction, offering captivating characters with equally-interesting schemes, a fully-realized world rife with historical descriptions, and a plot with enough twists to keep you guessing until the very end. If you enjoy courtly intrigues set in the Renaissance period, then I highly recommend you give this novel a go.
Arthur Phillips is an American author born in Minneapolis with the distinction of having been educated at Harvard. He has known numerous careers, from being a child actor and jazz musician to entrepreneur, before finally settling in the realms of literature.
His first published novel, Prague, was the recipient of The Lost Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His other bestsellers include The Egyptologist and Angelica.