Jean-Baptiste Poncet is a doctor in Cairo in the age that precedes the construction of the Suez Canal, and more precisely at the end of 1600. At the time, the Turkish dominate the area but tolerates the presence of other nations’ representatives, among which a French embassy. The French ambassador receives news that the Negus of Ethiopia is sick and is in search of a doctor to treat him. This is a great occasion for the Catholic Church to make up for the failed conversion to Catholicism of the Ethiopic people, by sending a disguised delegation to enter the hardly accessible African kingdom in order to possibly start a new attempt. Poncet will be called to be the leader of the expedition that will lead this delegation into the territory.
The story follows Poncet in his travel to Ethiopia, his travel back to Cairo, and then to Paris to the court of Louis XIV, with the underlying theme of the physician’s goal of asking the hand of the French ambassador’s daughter, once the expedition will be successful and the king will confer him the nobility that seems to be a requirement to fill the gap between him and the girl of nobler origin.
The book is an interesting account of this great adventure that reads like a big and stereotypical classic, with love, subterfuges, exotic landscapes, and interesting historical descriptions of a time so far from ours. It would be almost naive in its apparent simplicity if it wasn’t for the ending, where the protagonists rebel against the status-quo and do the unexpected to reach the predictable happy ending.
At one point I had hopes that it would turn into something Montecristo-esque, and in particular when it is revealed that Poncet, a young doctor, is actually an adventurer that looks for trouble around the world and has learned to fight with a sword from the old master of arms and fellow adventurer-turned-into-herbalist Juremi. But no use is made of this interesting detail, apart from adding a little bohemian background to the main characters.
Recommended unless you have something more compelling to read.