I can’t really do justice to this novel. Tariq Ali is a brilliant writer with a deep knowledge of history; the history of the relationship between Islam and the West, in particular. And he’s a phenomenally good story teller.
The novel is the account of a purely fictional Jewish scribe, ibn Yakub, whom Salah al-Din has enlisted to write his memoirs. Ibn Yakub spends the next 10 years with Salah al-Din, becoming a trusted friend and, if not advisor, then willing ear. Those 10 years span the period when Salah al-Din briefly united most of the Islamic world, and scored significant military successes against the Crusader armies.
The story is told exclusively from the point of view of Salah al-Din, of course, and no doubt papers over many points. But it is pretty refreshing to see history as told from a perspective outside the mainstream (the western mainstream, that is), and helps provide some perspective on the long struggle that we are still a part of.