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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'The King at the Edge of the World' by Arthur Phillips

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, March 3 with a discussion of The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this tale of espionage and faith at the end of the Elizabethan era.

What is The King at the Edge of the World about?

The year is 1601. Queen Elizabeth is dying, childless. The nervous kingdom has no heir. It is a capital crime even to think that Elizabeth will ever die. Potential successors secretly maneuver to be in position when the inevitable arrives. The leading candidate is King James VI of Scotland, but there is a problem.

The queen’s spymasters—hardened veterans of a long war on terror and religious extremism—fear that James is not what he appears. He has every reason to claim he is a Protestant, but if he secretly shares his family’s Catholicism, then the last forty years of religious war will have been for nothing, and a bloodbath will ensue. With time running out, London confronts a seemingly impossible question: What does James truly believe?

It falls to Geoffrey Belloc, a secret warrior from the hottest days of England’s religious battles, to devise a test to discover the true nature of King James’s soul. Belloc enlists Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician left behind by the last diplomatic visit from the Ottoman Empire, as his undercover agent. The perfect man for the job, Ezzedine is the ultimate outsider, stranded on this cold, wet, and primitive island. He will do almost anything to return home to his wife and son.

Critical Reception

“An old-fashioned pleasure to read; its plot is an intricate set of intersecting mechanisms and locks and keys, which, when they finally all fall into place, provide the reader with the gawping satisfaction of having been well and truly fooled. And then fooled again…the book blends the leanness of a taut thriller with the marbled fatness of Elizabethan prose. Combining those two is quite the juggling act.” —The New York Times

” . . . Phillips is a terrifically engaging teacher . . . [he] laces Ezzedine’s sojourn in England with melancholy wit, but the novel’s real energy comes from its exploration of two related industries that flourished under Queen Elizabeth: theater and spycraft.”—Washington Post

“A rare combination of literary finesse and quick-paced plot—and another triumph from the versatile Phillips.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This wise, tricky novel, in which every character is “performing” in some guise or other while trying to get at some solid kernel of truth, whisks you into guessing games of the very best kind.”—The Seattle Times

Named a 2020 Notable Book by both The New York Times and Washington Post.

Why did we pick this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

The King at the Edge of the World explores events within Shakespeare’s lifetime—with references to his theater and contemporaries— to weave a fascinating story of espionage, philosophy, and politics.

About the author: Arthur Phillips
Adapted from his website

Arthur Phillips was born in Minneapolis and educated at Harvard. He has been a child actor, a jazz musician, a speechwriter, a dismally failed entrepreneur, and a five-time Jeopardy! champion. His first novel, Prague, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and received The Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for best first novel. His second novel, The Egyptologist, was an international bestseller, and was on more than a dozen “Best of 2004” lists. Angelica, his third novel, made The Washington Post best fiction of 2007 and led that paper to call him “One of the best writers in America” and became a film in 2015. The Song Is You was a New York Times Notable Book and on the Post’s best of 2009 list. His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, was published in 2011 to critical acclaim, including being named a New York Times Notable Book, and being shortlisted for the IMPAC International Literary Prize and became a play read at New York’s Public Theater in 2011 and a full stage production in 2013, under the auspices of the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project. His short story, Companionship, was adapted into an opera by Rachel Peters and received its debut at the Fort Worth Opera in 2019.

He has written for television’s Damages (FX/DirecTV), Bloodline (Netflix), Tokyo Vice (HBOMax) and created television series for FX Networks, HBO, and Sundance. He has further television pilots and feature films in development.

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Bridge Street Books

For our March session, we are excited to partner again with Bridge Street Books, a neighborhood bookstore with an international reputation.

Their DC storefront is open from 11am-8pm Mon-Thurs, 11am-9pm Fri-Sat, and 12pm-8pm Sun. Curb-side pickup and shipping are available by calling 202.965.5200 or emailing

You can also order directly on, or download the audiobook version of this title from

Make a plan to join us on Thursday, March 3 to discuss The King at the Edge of the World. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: