Set in the late 1500s, Salman Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence teems with pirates, wise men, eunuch spies, and hookers with hearts of lead, all of them orbiting two heroes. One is an emperor, the other a traveling trickster. Akbar the Great, whose realm stretches from Kabul to Bengal, is as mad and melancholy as Hamlet; despite his many wives, he lusts after a queen he dreamed up ”in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends.” Then a Florentine magic man calling himself Niccolò Vespucci glides into Akbar’s court with a yarn about a common relative: a sorceress descended from Genghis Khan, a good witch at the center of a great fable.
The plot is digressive and willfully languid, with Rushdie churning out mini-myths like Scheherazade; thankfully, there’s a forward power to his perfectly ripe prose. About the inner lives of royals, he proves as sharp as Helen Mirren in The Queen. About the clash of civilizations, he is uniquely compelling — his rendering of tensions between East and West reflects modern anxieties. Rushdie’s brightest ideas have always concerned belonging, travel, and exile, and here he shapes them into a shimmering tale about the deep sweetness of home. A-