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In Peter Blauner’s Picture in the Sand (Minotaur Books 2023), young Alex Hassan belongs to a middle-class immigrant family but leaves the United States and becomes a radical Muslim. His grandfather Ali pleads with the teen to reconsider and tells Alex about his own heroic journey, one that included a prison sentence, the loss of his left eye, and Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments.
The story then goes back to the 1950s, as aspiring cinematographer Ali gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he lands a job as Cecil B. DeMille’s chauffeur during the making of the cinematic masterpiece. But political tensions in Egypt are boiling over, and some of the locals aren’t thrilled with the American presence.
When Muslim radicals threaten to sabotage the film, Ali must choose between his homeland and his dreams of becoming a famous director.
For those who grew up watching The Ten Commandments, Picture in the Sand is a nostalgic treat. (Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner make frequent appearances.) With espionage, romance, and swashbuckling characters—one villain even has the requisite scar on his face—the book feels like a throwback to 1940’s pulp-adventure fiction. Note: There are several misuses of the Lord’s name and some instances of strong, bad language.
IN 14TH-CENTURY INDIA, the Kingdom of Kampili falls, and the wives of those who died in battle sacrifice themselves in a bonfire. Nine-year-old Pampa Kampana watches her mother walk into the flames and vows never to submit to such a patriarchal ritual. A goddess then inhabits the girl, giving her long life and magical powers.
With the help of two cowherds, Pampa plants seeds that become the miraculous Bisnaga or “Victory City,” a trendsetting realm where women have the same privileges as men.
Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie’s latest epic, Victory City (Random House 2023), is presented as a translation of Pampa’s autobiography with such a complex narrative that it is hard to believe it isn’t actually an ancient text. For precisely that reason, the foul language feels out of place.
While the novel is a feat of storytelling and full of funny moments, it’s little more than an elongated narrative about a “kingdom of love” that embraces polytheism and limitless intercourse (with multiple partners if so desired). The protagonist has erotic statues built around the city as she attempts to create a “place of laughter, happiness, and frequent and variegated sexual delight.”
Since the tale is full of stock strong female characters, it doesn’t come as much of a shocker that men are portrayed as the real problem. In an eye-rolling turn of events, Pampa’s male grandchildren assert their right to rule, she is exiled to the Forest of Women, and the kingdom begins to collapse.
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