I have to admit that I was a little shell-shocked after finally getting through The Terror, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to read anything for a while because my brain had turned to mush. The Steel Seraglio happily disabused me of this notion.
Note: I am a personal acquaintance of the publicity assistant for this book’s publisher, ChiZine Publications.
About the book: The sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari, ruler of the desert city of Bessa, has been deposed by the zealot Hakkim Mehdad. Mehdad, disdainful of the pleasures of the flesh, at first sentences the sultan’s 365 concubines to exile. However, when he learns that the seraglio harbours the sultan’s only remaining heir, he orders them to be executed instead. Now, these women must use their wits and the talents of their greatest members and allies – Gursoon, the dead sultan’s wisest counsellor; Zuleika, the assassin; Rem, the seer who weeps tears of ink; and Anwar Das, the crafty bandit – to become as strong as steel and reclaim their home.
What I liked: This book was a swift read, and skillfully written. I liked that this book passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours. For those of you who don’t know what the Bechdel Test is, this clip below provides a good summary:
Most novels in the science fiction and fantasy canon feature white, straight, male protagonists, so it was a pleasure to read a book where the majority of the characters were women of colour, two of whom start up a lesbian relationship. Identity/gender politics aside though, the dialogue was true-to-life, and the characters were deftly drawn so that they each distinguished themselves in small ways – no mean feat in a book that features a cast of dozens. In particular, the scene where the desert bandit Anwar Das crafts a tall tale on the fly to save his neck had me giggling with delight. I also appreciated how the authors played with my expectations by introducing a particularly fractious and entitled concubine, and then having her become a key person in the seraglio’s survival, rather than the threat at its centre.
Finally, the the character Rem provided an interesting take on the concept of the omniscient narrator. Rem is a seer gifted with the knowledge of all people and things. (And when I say that, I really mean all things, as her knowledge extends to modern-day computing and classic literature; one of the book’s cleverest asides is when she tries to tell the story of Moby Dick to her uncomprehending peers in the desert.) However, her powers are limited in that she can’t predict the outcomes of the events that she herself takes part in. This is a clever workaround for the perennial problems surrounding the use of psychics/prophets in fiction.
What I disliked: Much more happens in the book than is revealed in the cover copy. At the risk of spoiling the plot, the seraglio’s war to retake Bessa occurs a little over halfway through the novel, and much more happens in the story after this point. Several events throughout the book are recounted quickly, only for it to be mentioned briefly that those events took place over the span of years rather than months.
The closing half of the book, after the seraglio returns to Bessa, takes place over several years, but exactly how many years is never explained. This lack of a sense of timeflow is my largest problem with the book, as it seemed that some people aged and died quickly, while others maintained peak physical form over the same period of time.
The verdict: The Steel Seraglio was a pageturner, and all the more delightful for its setting and depth of characterization. This was the first book in a while that I couldn’t stop thinking about once I put it down to return to my work, and I reached for it immediately during my commute. Hell, I even read it over the weekend, the time that I normally spend puttering around the house and working on blog posts. I inhaled this book over the course of three days, and for that I tip my hat to the Careys.
Up next: Returning My Sister’s Face, by Eugie Foster