Minnesota native Arthur Phillips writes with such breadth, intelligence and wit one wonders how he’s able to fit his imagination between the covers of a book ... Phillips is back at it, plopping us with his fine prose into a time and place that is shadowy, esoteric and darkly entertaining ... The novel is brilliant—textured, witty and Shakespeare-deep with palace intrigue, lust, conspiracy, xenophobia and Iago-level villainy. Best of all is that Phillips puts us inside the head of Ezzedine, the outsider ... It’s a darkly humorous tale in which compromised people do the dirty work of power-hungry men who peddle in conspiracy and hate.
Phillips is at pains to remind us of the superiority of Asia, sometimes to a fault. His principal character is so full of yearning for his lost Constantinople, and so committed to reminding us of the relative backwardness of the British Isles, that one begins to question his lack of intellectual curiosity. It is possible to comprehend his despair at being lost in the rugged wilds of the northeast, but it seems rum that a mind as fine as Ezzedine’s can take no pleasure in the London theater of his day, the wit of its court or its fledgling struggles toward the scientific mentality ... Despite this narrowness of vision, the book is a delightfully rich fruitcake and an old-fashioned pleasure to read; its plot is an intricate set of intersecting mechanisms and locks and keys, which, when they finally all fall into place, provide the reader with the gawping satisfaction of having been well and truly fooled. And then fooled again. That conjurer’s panache of a reveal is achieved through cleverly withheld information, alluring blind alleys and pungent red herrings. Sentence by sentence, the book blends the leanness of a taut thriller with the marbled fatness of Elizabethan prose. Combining those two is quite the juggling act ... Equally enjoyable is the pleasure, borrowed from John le Carré, of watching the games of vastly intelligent and dead-hearted men as they play with the lives of the less guileful ... The yanking together of the Elizabethan court and a Cold War sensibility is a bold endeavor, and almost succeeds, though it’s finally undone by its implausibility ... Simply writing for the reader’s pleasure seems to be increasingly rare these days, and to pick up a book like The King at the Edge of the World, which contains teasing philosophical and theological ideas within an unapologetic entertainment, is a small mercy for which much gratitude is due.
... a cunning tale of espionage and court intrigue ... evokes flashes of Hilary Mantel, John le Carré and Graham Greene, but the wry, tricky plot that drives it is pure Arthur Phillips ... The novel takes its time building to full intensity ... Mr. Phillips plays this Elizabethan drama relatively straight, resisting his usual verbal pyrotechnics of puns, anagrams and wordplay in favor of a steady undercurrent of irony, cross-cultural barbs and deception ... You don’t have to be a sleuth to find contemporary relevance in Mr. Phillips’s interest in the subterfuge and ambiguity involved in gathering intelligence ... there’s always more than meets the eye in an Arthur Phillips novel. Come for the plot and verbal alacrity, but remember that the play’s the thing.