Saturday, May 06, 2017

Among the Ruins

Among the Ruins / Ausma Zehanat Khan
New York: Minotaur, c2017.
357 p.

This is the third novel in the Inspector Esa Khattak series. I really enjoyed book two, The Language of Secrets, last year so quickly picked up this new one... although I still haven't gone back to read book one. I seem to have that problem with series! 

In any case, this book is a little different: Khattak is taking a break after the events that ended the last book. He's on leave, and travelling in Iran. But his idyll is interrupted when a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker, Zahra Sobanhi, is killed, and the Canadian government contacts him for some investigative help while he's there. 

He must keep a low profile and not stand out as someone asking too many questions; but he still gets involved with the fate of Iran's political prisoners, and some young protesters. He can't find what he needs without his partner, Rachel Getty, though. Back in Toronto, she starts digging into Iran's contemporary politics and floats the idea that Zahra's killing may not have been fully political. 

Iran, with all its complexities, is beautifully drawn by Khan. The daily life of regular people like Khattak's innkeeper is shown as peculiarly everyday in the face of the political regime. At the same time, his involvement with a young group of students who are anti-regime shows the silent resistance. His position as a tourist both protects him and makes his stay precarious. There is exquisite beauty there, in the landscape and the architecture of palaces and mosques. And there is extreme violence and repression, as shown by the notorious Evin prison.  

This book is very successful at showing the fine line of life under a violent regime. The characters are fascinating and engaging, for the most part. I did feel that the romantic undertones between Khattak and almost any woman he came across, whether students or women his own age, were a bit much. It's as if he couldn't have any kind of encounter without that idea cropping up. 

The other reason I found this book slightly less successful than the last was simply the fact that so much was crammed into it. Iran's politics were confusing and scary enough; to add in a whole other mystery line of smuggling, con men and so on just felt like a little too much -- the mystery and its consequences got a little muddy. I would have 100% believed that Zahra got on the wrong side of politics, I didn't need all the extra skullduggery. 

Khan supports all of her stories with extensive research and knowledge of her settings. In this book she also includes source references for further reading, for anyone interested in the facts behind her story. They are worth spending some time exploring; there is so much to learn about this place and its history. 

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