cover image The Siege of Isfahan

The Siege of Isfahan

Jean-Christophe Rufin. W. W. Norton & Company, $26.95 (373pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04988-6

Reaching back into the archive of characters that made The Abyssinian an international success, Rufin once again sends his gallant French apothecary, Jean-Baptiste Poncet, on a journey through the great empires of the Middle East. This time, Poncet must leave his home in early 18th-century Isfahan, the capital of Persia, to rescue his best friend, Juremi, who has been captured and imprisoned in Russia. First, however, Poncet must fake death to escape the clutches of a Persian king who wants Poncet to be his personal physician. After making his getaway and finding his friend, Poncet is again captured and sold as a slave in Russia; back in Isfahan his wife, Alix, is forced from the family home when a conquering army of Afghans threatens the city. But the worst fate befalls Poncet's red-haired 16-year-old daughter, Saba, who as a ""red virgin"" is selected to be sacrificed to save Isfahan. After many adventures on the steppes, Poncet and Juremi return to Persia as elephant-keepers in the custody of a band of Afghan warriors. Their efforts to rescue Saba are prodigious, but in the end Saba must rescue herself, and along with her the besieged population of Isfahan. Poncet proves once again to be a lively, engaging protagonist, and Rufin is an able storyteller who keeps his tale moving while offering a wealth of information about the politics and customs of the civilizations of the Middle East. (Mar.) Forecast: Though The Abyssinian won France's prestigious Prix Goncourt, Rufin's novels are more popular than literary, which explains the mixed critical reception for that novel in the U.S. This sequel will do best if booksellers target readers of popular historical fiction. A four-city author tour will give Rufin extra U.S. exposure.