September 15, 2005


The Legend of the Wandering King. By Laura Gallego García. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.95.

     A tale straight out of the Arabian Nights – but set in an even earlier age – The Legend of the Wandering King is rooted in the true story of a prince of pre-Islamic Arabia.  It was a time, as Laura Gallego García wonderfully writes, when “the only rules of behavior were those of honor and love – and honor and love break all the rules.”  This is thus a novel of honor, of love, of rules and of rule-breaking, and it will sweep you into its panorama of olden days at once.

     The theme of this book, which is not revealed until near the end, is, “A man’s true nature always shines forth, though he thinks he is able to hide it.”  The man at the center of the tale is King Walid ibn Hujr, who wanders on a search for a fabled carpet that tells every individual his or her fate, and also contains within it the history and fate of the entire human race – or, to be more accurate, the history and fates of individuals and the race, for the carpet is in its own way a testimony both to wisdom and to free will.  It is also a thing of immense power that can drive to madness anyone who dares look at it.

     Someone dares not only to look but also to touch, stealing the carpet from the old palace in whose treasury it has been kept and leading to young King Walid’s quest to bring it back.  This quickly becomes a journey into himself as well as through the deserts and cities of the ancient Middle East.  For King Walid bears an internal scar caused by a terrible secret that drives him on and that appears, in the novel’s first pages and again at its end, to lead him to a death that perhaps he fully deserves.  Or perhaps not – that is one lesson of the carpet he seeks.

     This is a tale of wonder that is wonderfully told, filled with bandits and blowing sands and djinns and a beautiful woman whom Walid may be fated to marry (or perhaps not).  García’s skill lies in taking traditional narrative forms, from fairy tale to quest story to journey of self-discovery, and combining them seamlessly into a book that is both fast-paced and frequently emotionally moving.  It can be funny, too, as when one unfortunate character who has gazed at the carpet starts spouting remarks about “television” and “automobiles” without knowing what the words mean.  By the end, readers have traveled to exotic lands in ancient days and been left with something, or several possible somethings, to think about.  It is quite a tale and quite a journey.

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