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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 8 June 2012
Kingdom of Strangers is the third crime novel in a series set in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It follows from The Night of the Mi'raj and City of Veils. Some of the characters from the first two novels make appearances, but the novel could probably be read on its own. (That said, the novel is much more enjoyable when you know the history)

By now it is clear who is the undisputed hero of this series: Katia, a female forensic scientist, working for the police, mostly stuck in a lab, but keen to have a more active role in the investigations. (The first novel centred more around Nayir, a desert guide who got involved in a murder investigation and met Katia, but by now, Katia is the central pillar of the stories)

This time, the novel starts with the gruesome discovery of 19 dead bodies in the desert. A serial killer in Saudi Arabia - almost unheard of. And he's been busy, undiscovered, for ten years...

Meanwhile, the newly arrived inspector Ibrahim, tasked with leading the investigation, is having an affair outside marriage - and, when he turns up at his lover's flat, she is missing.

The novel is quick to set up its main plot strands, but chisels away at them at a pace that is steady, confident and not too rushed. It's not the sort of novel where each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and each cliffhanger is more unbelievable than the last. Instead, the tension is amped up at a steady, confident pace, and the novel is engrossing all the way through. For a few chapters, I thought it might descend into stereotypes (serial killer toying with his pursuers, making it personal, etc.), but thankfully, the story stops feeling as if it were following a template soon enough.

One of the big attractions of this series has always been that it is set in Saudi Arabia - a country most of its readers might never set foot in (I doubt I ever will), and a country with a culture that is about as far away from Western philosophies as it is possible to get. The book treats its characters with a credible level of complexity, and the reader with a degree of respect. As Westerners, the readers would miss a lot of information if it was not spelled out, and so it is, but never in an obtrusive way. Exposition is handled masterfully. We are simply part to characters' thoughts and analyses - and those thoughts are often determined by the expectations of the society around them, and their own internal conflicts whenever they chafe against the limits (or when they transgress). There is an awful lot of chafing in this novel, but it seems quite credible that regular people in Saudi Arabia have to tightrope walk on a very thin line for much of their lives...

The book is not entirely without flaws. Coincidence, that cheat, does affect the plot, and one revelation is preceded by a cloaked premonition in a dream. Both are forgivable - the novel would have worked just as well without the latter, and the coincidences are small in number, and occur early in the timeline of the novel.

Of the three Jedda murder novels written by Zoe Ferraris, this has become my favourite. I breezed through it in two days (which is fast, for me), and was completely hooked all the way through. Encountering an actual adulterous character - and his unique crises of conscience, challenges, and the threats hanging over his head - was an incredibly effective source of tension. It made the serial killer mystery pale by comparison, and turned this book into a real thriller.

I enjoyed the story so much, I would recommend the entire series to anyone. I would definitely recommend reading the first two books before tackling Kingdom of Strangers, just so this one can be appreciated fully. The preceding novels are both good books in their own right - but this one is absolutely brilliant.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2012
I have read all the other books by this author. I like the crime genre but would have to say that it can be hard to find a quality novel as so many seem formulaic with some truly appalling writing. Not so with this author. The writing is good, but what really grabs my attention is how the story blends the narrative with the lived experience of being a woman in SaudiArabia. It is this that gives Zoe Ferraris the edge.
This is a great read, I could not put it down and while I initially thought oh dear, another serial killer novel, the setting of the story in Saudi gives it a welcome twist. This is one author to watch and I look forward to seeing whether she will develop beyond this genre. Highly recommended, you won't be disappointed
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
There's a quote on the book cover from a Guardian review of City of Veils that makes a very perceptive observation about Zoë Ferraris' work. While her stories are great detective fiction in their own right, they are intrinsically linked to their Saudi Arabian setting - it's much more than just a colourful exotic background - the author managing through them to trace the roots of many of the crimes against women right back to the misuse of religion in a society with very different attitudes and values from Western civilisation.

That's even more the case in Kingdom of Strangers, which opens with the discovery of nineteen female bodies - all of them seemingly runaway immigrants not missed by anyone - uncovered in the sand dunes in the desert by Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani. The number nineteen also has mystical significance relating to the Quran and various other clues suggest further patterns, making this particular and unusual case of serial killing even more potentially explosive. While this is a strong central crime for investigation, Zoë Ferraris manages however to subtly show a much more extensive problem relating to the place of women within Saudi society through related cases and even through the everyday lives of her characters.

I say "subtly", but there's nothing subtle about the actual nature of the shocking treatment endured by women in Saudi society there, and indeed in some extreme cases of religious devotion, treatment that is even sanctioned and instigated by women themselves. What is subtle however is how the author manages to delve behind the veil of the burqa, mainly through Katya, a forensic scientist on the police force in an uncertain position in her life and career, and show that there is much more going on there than most men would like to believe. These incidents and insights are weaved brilliantly and realistically into the fabric of the main criminal investigation, deepening the meaning and relevance of the murders.

It's not uncommon to see the personal lives of recurring characters involved in their cases, but this aspect seems to be even more integrated into the overall narrative in the case of Ibrahim and Katya. Each of them necessarily have to keep secrets in their own personal lives due to the nature of Saudi and religious law, and their own circumstances show just how difficult this lack of openness can make the investigation of any serious crime. Kingdom of Strangers is therefore another strong work from Zoë Ferraris on every level. It's an intriguing serial killer murder investigation, it's a continuation of the development of genuinely interesting and evolving characters, it's revelatory of all kinds of sickness within Saudi society, but it also gets to the beauty of the people and the world they live in.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 3 October 2012
Think that these novels, set in Saudi have been excellent to date and work well as crime novels and as a way of looking inside another society.

One of the things that made them brilliant was the way Zoe Ferraris wrote so dispassionately about Saudi society helping you understand how immensely different it was culturally and how easy it is for a westerner to not have a clue. By doing that you were left with a sense of shock and horror at a society that totally controls the way someone thinks, the role of women, the sense of suffocation for men and women, of a society wracked by hidden fault lines.

The only other person who I feel has done this really well is Hilary Mantell in her Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.

This time round feel she has missed a trick by using common stereotypes and is a tad lecturing. Less can be more when you complete the dots for yourself.

As a crime novel works well enough although if I was being picky would suggest some of the coincidences are over egged.

This series is really worth reading and would suggest to anyone considering it to start at the beginning of the series.

Also to buy the paperback rather than the Kindle version as you will really want to lend this to your friends.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 18 October 2012
As in her previous novels, the who-done-it aspect of this book is secondary to the taste of Saudi that it offers. The author expertly weaves in so many little gems of information about how this enclosed society operates, particularly with a view to its women. These are illustrated around the resulting impossibility of conducting a crime investigation where men and women cannot directly communicate without the permission of a male family member. Our heroine, Katya, resists these strictures, resulting in some interesting interactions.

Not one, but nineteen dead bodies are found early on in this novel, hidden under the sand in the depths of the desert. Only thanks to a sandstorm are parts of them revealed. The hands have been removed in all cases, although three had been buried with the bodies. An American criminal investigator is called in to help work towards a profile of the criminal, but Charlie turns out to be a woman, minus head coverings and with frighteningly 'bouncy' hair.

Katya is a forensic scientist, working in the all-female lab where some of the investigative work is done. She is desperate to escape the lab and become more involved but, at the same time, a woman working in such a job should be married and Katya has lied about this, so she doesn't want to make too many waves.
Katya's love interest is a man we have met in the two previous books, Nayir, the desert ranger. He's a very different character to her, much more devout - so how can he reconcile with the job she does and its inevitable contact with men from outside the family?

Referring back to my Kindle, I have highlighted several interesting points which might serve to show some of the broad scope of this book:
An insight into the desperately poor people camping in megre shelter under the Sitteen Street Bridge. These were house maids who had escaped abusive employers, some who had come to Saudi Arabia for housework, only to find themselves working as prostitutes. Some had come for the Haj and had overstayed their visas. Still others, women who had escaped from violent husbands. This strikes a stark contrast with the wealth and opulence of the hugely extended royal family.
The impossibility of arresting a woman for shoplifting unless her husband was present and willing to let her be searched. A policeman chasing such a woman down the street would be accused of impropriety and would most likely be arrested and tried himself.
The fact that by marriage, a husband ties himself to years of driving his wife around, as women are not permiited to drive themselves. The author commented in an interview that she wanted to highlight this aspect of a man's commitment to his wife; he becomes both husband and taxi driver, whether he likes it or not.
In a society where men and women are not permitted to mix, men would Bluetooth naked pictures of themselves to anyone in a sixty-foot radius!
Something that I was not aware of - in the Quran, the word 'prayer' appears five times, echoing the fact that Islam has five compulsory prayer times. The word 'month' appears twelve times and the word 'day' appears 365 times.

I loved one comment made by a feisty woman, "I don't care which direction Mecca is in, we live on a globe. No matter where I put my head, I'm facing Mecca".
These are the aspects of the book that, for me, outweighed any failings of the crime investigation. This author just keeps getting better, I'm not generally a fan of crime novels but I plan to read anything written by Zoe Ferraris.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2012
Book 3, in the Katya Hijazi series

This is another unusual and intricate mystery giving us an insider's view into the customs of Saudi inhabitants. It delves into the heart and lives of women in one of the most mysterious and closed societies of the world. Ms. Ferraris has created a winning combination and has given us a nail- biting and straightforward criminal investigation saga. Book 3 is part of a series featuring Saudi forensic technician Katya Hijazi, however, it can be equally enjoyed as a standalone fiction.

"Kingdom of Strangers" revolves around human trafficking and the brutal treatment of some migrant workers who are brought in from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia to perform tasks the Saudis are reluctant to do.

It opens with the discovery of 19 female bodies in the desert outside Jeddah their hands have all been severed to make a strong point and make them even harder to identify. Lt. Col. Insp. Ibrahim Zahrani is assigned as the lead investigator to unravel this mystery. This is a case with such a magnitude it can make or break a person's career.

In a sub-plot, Ibrahim is distracted by a mystery close to home, his mistress Sabria, also a former undercover operative has suddenly disappeared. As a respected Saudi resident he cannot show his feelings or his concerns without attracting attention to their relationship. His only hope is to enlist the help of Katya Hijazi, a trusted colleague, who thrives on dealing in the shadows of the Saudi justice system. She is not afraid to extend her boundaries of responsibility and risk sanctions in order to get answers. All through the story she navigates the fine line of disobedience and compliance while working on both of Ibrahim's investigations.

The strong characterisation is the driving force behind this well written and entertaining plot. I always had a sweet spot for mysteries that are set in different parts of the world and created around customs that I am not familiar with. Ms. Ferraris is a remarkable storyteller and one of my favourite authors. This is an exotic mystery well worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 April 2013
I spend a lot of time in Jeddah, and have done so for many years. My friends and acquaintances there are Arabs--I have never mixed with the expatriate community. This book says a great deal about what it means to live in Saudi Arabia and it is particularly strong in the anger that is always just below the surface (and sometimes breaks through) about what it means to be a woman there, and how women are treated, and the way Islam is used to justify what cannot be justified. It is particularly strong on the hypocrisy rampant in Saudi, but also shows the strong faith of so many ordinary people and how they attempt to reconcile what they know to be false with what they believe to be true. Beyond that, it is also a well constructed thriller with strong, believable characters. I have given it only four stars instead of five because, in the end, there are just too many small plot points that don't quite work; most obvious of these is the dream that allows Katya to know what happened to Sabria and then to find her. But don't let that put you off--it's a really good read, and an aid to understanding for those who don't know how Saudi society operates.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2013
The last thing I want to see on a book cover is "competition to Stieg Larsson". They are not remotely comparable. And my heart sank when I discovered that this storyline included a serial killer. I cant help feeling that when an author resorts to a serial killer as the basis of a storyline then perhaps the Muse is leaving them. But have no fear this is a cracking read. Once again we are drawn into the stultifying atmosphere and rigid customs that hold such a stranglehold over those who live there. And once again the author has very cleverly woven a number of sub-plots into the personal lives of the main characters who are constantly coming into conflict with the religious and social laws of the country. A number of main characters from the previous two novels have slipped back into secondary or peripheral roles and Katya is clearly the main character and given how the author has treated her principle characters in this book I await with interest to see who is going to emerge in her follow up novel. I cant rate this series too highly but although each can be read in isolation I would recommend starting at the beginning.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 20 June 2012
We know so little about Saudi Arabia, and so generally fall back on stereotypical images of desert/ repression of women/ religious fanaticism. This book does more than just scratch the surface and we get a real taste of this shuttered world through a tense and intriguing serial killer mystery. This is a far more diverse society than we might expect, and the characters seem very real, despite at times acting in (for a westerner) startlingly unexpected ways. The repression and abuse of women is horrifying, but we also see women who are far from being passive victims, and who in different ways fight against the role assigned to them. So all in all an excellent, well written thriller in an exotic and intersting setting - highly recommended!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 15 October 2013
Whilst this novel's main premise is the detection of a serial killer, it's more about life in Saudi Arabia if you're a woman. And because women are the victims, in more ways than one, that helps to make the themes compatible.

It's a good read and a fascinating window into the faith and customs and life of both Saudi's (men and women) and immigrants (women), and the way that faith and hypocrisy and love and anger twirl around each other.

It's well paced and there is genuine mystery as to how it will all turn out. But it lacks the fifth star due to too many 'extra' bits of story and characters that could have been trimmed.
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