Friday 25 March 2022

The Pirate by Joan Fallon

The Pirate by Joan Fallon
11th Century

Anyone interested in a vivid portrayal of life in Moorish Spain would do well to read Ms Fallon’s well-researched books. The Pirate is the second book in her The City of Dreams trilogy, and while it works well as a standalone, the series benefits from being read in order – and to fully appreciate it, I would recommend reading the first trilogy, The Al-Andalus Series, as well.

The Pirate is set in Malaqah (present day M├ílaga) and its protagonist, Bakr ibn Assam, is an accomplished shipwright—so skilled, in fact, that one day he is carried off in a pirate attack. Why? Because this ambitious pirate has decided to set up his own shipyard and needs the best of the best to build his new fleet. Bakr is less than delighted—and he also fears for the lives of himself and his two companions. The less than dashing pirate Al-Awal is ruthless and cruel and makes it very clear that Bakr is never returning home again. Bakr must put his faith in Allah—and in his own resourcefulness.

Meanwhile, in Malaqah, Bakr’s wife, Aisha, must somehow keep things going. Not only must she keep the household alive and fed, she is determined to keep Bakr’s pride and joy, the shipyard, working. It must be there, waiting for him, when he finally comes home. To Aisha, it is inconceivable that he is dead. God has already taken one husband from her; surely he will not take another?

While Bakr struggles to survive and find a way out of his predicament and while various members of his family desperately search for him—Aisha’s father and brother may not share her conviction he is still alive, but for now they are willing to pander to her hope—Ms Fallon weaves yet another thread into the narrative, namely that of the Khalifa Idris ibn Ali, ruler of Malaqah, and his endeavours to unite the rulers of various other taifas to once and for all put a stop to the expansions of Sevilla. Unfortunately for the khalifa, he should be watching for enemies much, much closer to home.

Ms Fallon adds layer after complex layer to the political intrigue and that particular plotline is not resolved in this instalment of the series. Let’s just say that ambition, hunger for power and greed are as strong motivators in Moorish Spain as they are in the present day—and those who want it do not hesitate to use nefarious methods to achieve their goals. 

It is very easy to relate to Aisha, a woman whose life in many ways resembles that of a modern-day woman, what with juggling family and work. She is intelligent and brave, but the restrictions imposed on her by her gender are always present, even if Aisha knows how to circumvent them when so required. I loved the depiction of the warm relationship between Aisha and her father, the apothecary Makoud. I grinned at the description of the somewhat more acrimonious relationship between Aisha and her mother-in-law. And I kept my fingers crossed that Aisha and Bakr would be reunited—somehow.

Ms Fallon’s forte lies not only in presenting us with well-developed characters but also in depicting everyday life, be it the casually mentioned cure for a persistent cough or the conversations on the rooftops as the sun sets after yet another blistering day. Details of clothes and traditions, of foods and interiors are dotted throughout, anchoring the narrative firmly in time and place. Add to this a fluid prose and strong dialogue and you have a very enjoyable read. 

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

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