Rating: 5 stars out of 5
General John Mitchel and Gabriel Sanchez have finally begun to settle into their new lives as an couple and outwardly gay men when an old colleague calls with a request for help. General David Painter, now CEO of a private security outfit, has two of his men, former Rangers, who have been captured and imprisoned in Tunisia. And they are being held in one of the most notorious prisons in the Middle East. Painter wants John and Gabriel to get them out and safely home.
With problems on the home front with Kim, Abdullah, and Billy all involved in their own personal challenges, John and Gabriel knows its a tough time to leave but the alternative, leaving those boys to rot in prison or worse, is unthinkable. The Arab Uprising has left the government unstable and the political climate rife for rebellion in Tunisia. But liberating the men in only part of the mission, the other is to leave the country with every one involved safe and alive. An old enemy thwarts their every move, puting John and Gabriel in a dangerous position. As the obstacles mount against them, John finds that one of the men’s obsession with the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari might not only be their ticket home but a way to heal some deep wounds as they go.
The General and the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari is just spectacular! I think it is the best book Sarah Black has written to date, a great book among many wonderful ones. This book, the second in The General series, marks a departure from the original in so many ways. While that book, The General and the Horse-Lord, looked inward and focused on John and Gabriel as former Army officers now adjusting to civilian life and their status as out gay men and partners, this book takes all those elements (their extended family, career adjustments, love for the Army and country,etc) and expands that view while placing the men back in their comfort zone of military action,hostiles, and hostage negotiations. Its a brilliant move on the author’s part because now we get to see General John Mitchel (and Gabriel) in their element,. It is here that we see their personalities, thoughts and actions shine and the depth of their partnership and love emerge to support their actions and the group they assemble.
This book is remarkable in that every aspect of this story is well constructed and beautifully implemented. It has action scenes that will make you hold your breath in white knuckle anxiety yet scream in fear for those involved. It has pathos and angst, especially in the form of Eli, the young, brilliant ex Ranger captured and abused. It has the breadth of knowledge and admiration for a ancient rich culture and society now on the brink of meltdown while showing a sorrow for a people caught in the religious crossfires of zealotry and hatred. Black comments on the Arab uprising while bringing its reality to the reader in the scared visages and chaos that is every day life in Carthage and Tunisia. There is scholarly references to Ibn Battuta’s Rihla, Al-Jazari’s book, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices”as well as contemporary references to Star Wars, Spongebob Squarepants, and the lyrics of “Take It Easy” by the Eagles and Jackson Browne. This book is bursting at the seams in an explosion of history, culture, pop society milestones and great characterizations that will cement themselves in your heart never to leave.
Existing on the same superior level as the action and plot are the characters created for this series. Starting with John Mitchel, Gabriel Sanchez, Kim, Abdullah, Billy and even Juan, Gabriel’s confused and angry son, each and every one is a solid, believable, and often endearing personality that the reader will connect to easily. John Mitchel, the warrior philosopher, is easily the strongest and probably most magnetic, along with Gabriel. John is having the hardest time adjusting to civilian life, finding it boring and lacking the mental stimulation that he is used to. He is also finding it hard to relinquish his role as the commander who sees to everyones safety and directing their safe passage through life. Gabriel is also finding his new life harder than he thought it would be, with different demands as an ex husband and divorced family man whose kids are unhappy and angry over the destruction of their family unit to a law firm disintegrating under the load of needy cases and lack of revenue. The pain and confusion of divorce and its effects upon a family are not glossed over but folded in as a matter of fact part of life that the men and Gabriel’s children and ex-wife must deal with. It’s realistic, and recognizable in this day and age of multiple connected families. I love these men and their relationship, a work still in progress throughout the story although their love is never to be doubted.
Swimming in the sea of John and Gabriel’s love and support is their wonderful extended family of Kim, John’s brilliant Korean nephew, Abdullah, his godson, and Billy, a young man recovering from a brutal attack on campus. Now added to the fray are the men and woman who make up the rescue unit in Carthage. Eli and Daniel, Jen Painter, Sam Brightman, Wylie and Jackson, all memorable, each a living, breathing human being that will bring you to laughter and tears. Eli and Jen have to be two of my favorites, Eli one of the young men captured and Jen, the resilient and courageous young woman fighting to empower the embattled women of Tunisia. And then there is the director of the Bardo Museum, Ibrahim ibn Saeed ibn Ahmad al-Aziz, old and wise, encapsulating the best combination of humanity, learning and wisdom. There is a large cast here but each is necessary to the plot and to the group dynamic. You will fall in love with each and every one. Here is an excerpt. John is calling home from Carthage and is met with the usual chaos of multiple voices before talking to Billy:
So how are you, son? I was craving some of your tea today, that one with the blood oranges and rose hips and hibiscus. I can’t believe I’m starting to like it.”
“That’s my favorite, too. I was thinking we could plant some blackberry and raspberry vines in the back yard, make some fresh teas. You think they would grow here?”
“Maybe. If we built them a deep planter that we sunk in the ground. I’ve heard there were some traditional ways to plant up in northern New Mexico where they dug shallow pits, lined them with rocks, and planted trees in them.”
“I read something about the Hopi, how they planted—I was thinking about waffles, or a grid? I can’t remember. I’ll have to look it up.”
“Billy, do you know anything about the museums in Carthage?”
“Not really. Want me to look them up?”
“I would. Just write me a brief and send it to me, okay? That would be a big help.”
“I looked up some pictures of Carthage. It looks so beautiful, with the Mediterranean right there, and the sky so blue. Sad, though. Like that poem, how does it go? Two vast and trunkless legs of stone….”
John concentrated hard, trying to remember. “Ozymandias, and it was Shelley, I think, or Keats. I used to know it. “I met a traveller from an antique land who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read…. I can’t remember the rest. But you’re right, Billy. That poem looks like Carthage. I miss you, kiddo.”
“I miss you, too.”
Just look at the number of references in that short excerpt, from Hopi planting methods to Shelley’s Ozymandias overlaid with a man longing for home and the respect with which he treats the people who live under his roof. Black also demonstrates her knowledge and love of the military here. Whether it is the Flying Stallions and the primal sound of the “rhythmic thump, then, the sound of a big helicopter’s rotors” to the pain and sorrow of a young injured soldier unable to fathom his doctor’s distant attitude, you will feel as though you have walked a short ways in a soldier’s shoes.
From vivid descriptions of far away places to the characters and the ever present love of the Army and its mission, The General and the Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari, is a must read for 2013 or any year. Make sure you find a place for it on your bookshelf, digital or otherwise, with space for additional stories to come. This is a universe that begs for more stories with its wealth of characters and various challenges ahead that each face. I know at least one more is in the works, lets hope for an abundance.
This is how the story begins:
JOHN studied the candy-colored sky, raspberry pink edging to smudgy purple, the color of a grape lollipop. The colors reminded him of Turkish delight, a candy he’d been offered once in a Bedouin’s tent. He’d been there to negotiate passage for troops and troop trucks over the old man’s lands. It was rumored that the Bedouin was somehow involved in the nasty little conflict that had disrupted the flow of food aid to the region. John had been sent in to stomp on the sparks before civilian casualties escalated.
The old man’s grandson had filled two cups with mint tea so sweet John could smell the sugar over the dust and sun-warmed canvas of the tent. Then he’d offered the plate of Turkish delight with a flourish and a bow. The boy had black liquid eyes, long, thick lashes, and John had felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Eyes that beautiful and dark should have been filled with warmth, but the boy was young and didn’t know how to hide what was in his heart. John had watched the boy slide his hand down his leg, clutch the bronze dagger in the top of his boot and pull it free.
Then Gabriel was there, quiet as smoke, his rifle cradled in his arms, and the boy froze. John set his teacup down, refusing the Bedouin’s hospitality. It was an insult, a hard line drawn in the sand, nearly as hard a line as the one drawn when your grandson cut someone’s throat over a plateful of Turkish delight. The old man had eyes like the boy, a raptor’s eyes, cold and wet and black. John stood up, backed out of the tent without a word, and Gabriel spread his arms, the rifle in one big hand. No one could mistake the gesture. It said, No one touches him. You come through me to get to him.
SThe Elephant Clock of Al-Jazari