Thursday, August 16, 2012
This is a good book. What makes it good? The characters are real and I care about them. They are multi-dimensional, with some identifying characteristics, but not too predictable. But what I like most about the book is the setting. As I teach my Literature students, there are many components to fiction but five of the prominent elements are plot, characters, setting, tone and theme. To me, in this book the setting is almost the most important character. It takes place in 1025 or so, when barbers were also surgeons. The main character is orphaned at the age of 9, and is apprenticed to a barber-surgeon. After his mentor dies, he decides to travel from England to Persia (current Iran) passing himself as a Jew, to enter the esteemed school for physicians there, run by Muslim physicians. Religion plays an important role in the book, and the author incorporates many details about Judaism and Islam, and some details about Catholicism.
The author admits that while there is indeed some historical basis for story and setting in the book, much of the "historical" aspects are purely fictional, but he manages to evoke such a sense of time and place that it indeed feels real. It is a bit raw in places, but overall a very enjoyable read.
As I read it, I was thinking about the role of history in historical fiction, and the dilemma authors face deciding what to include. More on this in my next blog.