The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas by Dmitry Chen
The years straddling the mid-point of the eighth-century were a tumultuous time in the still new Islamic World. The region was in revolt: the Umayyad Caliphate was being replaced with the Abbasids. This is the time and historical milieu in which Russian author Dmitry Chen has set his novel The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas. But rather than setting it in the thick of the action, as it were, in the Arab heartland, Chen has instead centred the plot around Samarkand and Merv, in what are now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Nanidat Maniakh heads up the leading Samarkand house of silk merchants. No sooner has he returned from a lengthy and pleasant sojourn in China, when there’s an organized attempt on his life. Nanidat is forced to become a spy, and then a warrior caught up in the Abbasid overthrow of the Ummayad. Along the way, he must flee assassins, work disguised as a scribe and hospital assistant, negotiate with potentates and relearn whom to trust. Many of the people in the novel are historical personages, such the brothers Abu al-Abbas and Abu Jafar (al-Mansur)—the founders of the Abbasid dynasty—the rebel general Abu Muslim (al-Khorasani) and Barmak, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Balkh (or Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan).
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a work of historical fiction in which the history gets equal billing with the fiction. The novel touches not only on the momentous historical events of that time, but also on the beginnings of various rifts in the Muslim world that are still with us today: the Sunni/Shia split, the divisions between Arabs and Iranians (Persians) and various other ethnic differences. Nanidat is a Sogdian, his aide-de-camp Yukuk is Turkic, Mansour (as spelled here) et al. are Arabs.
Although some background and interest in these subject helps with the enjoyment of the book, the novel wears its erudition lightly. It is packed with several hundred pages’ worth of skulduggery, acts of derring-do, camels, donkeys, gold coins, silk robes, baggy trousers, treachery, sacrifice, hunting, hiding in various barrels and sacks, bloody wounds, all accompanied by discussions of philosophy, honor, history, poetry, wine, and much else besides.
Chen adopts a tone deliberately meant to be commensurate with the age. He drops in terms like Roum (i.e. Roman), Byzant and the “Celestial Empire”; his prose is loquacious:
“Ruined art thou, my Samarkand; thy beauties are destroyed,” said the poet. Thirty-seven years of war, squadron after squadron galloping down these very streets in clouds of dust. Temples looted, gods consumed by fire, countless caravans of booty departing westward to Merv, accompanied by columns of slaves. And again wars without end, first others against us, then brother against brother and stranger against stranger, and piles of fresh corpses heaped on hills both near and far...
But, though mauled, despoiled, deprived of hope, my city looked astonishingly alive amid the pale pink spume of trees in blossom. It rang with merry voices and smelled of morning-baked bread.
Both Chen and his protagonist can take some time to get to the point. But then The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is better read for its evocative atmosphere and detailed descriptions than plot. There are in fact two plots, the second being Nanidat’s search for a lost love who might (or might not) have become a demon female warrior. The two plots progress mostly in parallel and never really integrate. And it is not giving too much away to say that women characters are largely conspicuous by their absence: Chen’s world is almost entirely masculine.
If chain mail, hawks, assassins and camels are your thing, then you’re likely to enjoy The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas. It is a professionally-executed member of the genre, fluently translated and set in a part of the world, ’twixt China and the Holy Land, of now largely vanished glories that is little written about.
Just as interesting, however, and perhaps more so, is the nature of the book itself: Dmitri Kosyrev is a Russian journalist who adopted the nom-de-plume of “Master Chen” for his novels, rendered in the English edition as Dmitry Chen. He himself hails from from Central Asia, studied Chinese history at university and has spent considerable time in East Asia (he claims to have adopted the surname Chen while in Hong Kong). In an attempt to free the English edition from the vagaries of the publishing world, it was itself—evidently successfully—financed through a Kickstarter project, turning the normal publishing model on its head by, in effect, pre-selling the book.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is the first of a trilogy. Later volumes promise to take part farther East: a Russian writing about Sogdians in Tang Dynasty China is indeed something to look forward to.