The Steel Seraglio
by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey
Chizine Publications (2012)
Living in the desert sounds like an especially unpleasant way to spend my days, but I'm Canadian with a body acclimated to wintry conditions. Even if I had a huge palatial estate in which to luxuriate with my harem of hundreds, I'd still spend most of my time sweltering. So, I can only imagine how many seconds it would take for me to drop dead if exiled to the sandy desert like the 365 concubines that comprise an ousted sultan's seraglio.
Sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari is the kind of ruler who has a temper, and would otherwise be all set to lay seige on the neighboring sultans over petty grievances, except for the soothing and calming effect the wiliest of his concubines hold over him. Aside from being subservient to the sultan, their lives are remarkably easy-going. With literally hundreds of women at his beck-and-call, the becks and calls really only come on the rarest of occasions for each woman. So, to keep the peace, they use their intellect (and other wiles) to avert bloodshed with neighboring cities. In a very real sense, the seraglio rules the roost without holding any overt power. It's a strange notion, but The Steel Seraglio is presented in such a fabulous manner, it's easy to go along with the story.
For the purposes of this novel, that life is short-lived when a religious zealot raids the city and dispatches the sultan and his family. The new ruler lays down the law on the city, a stringent and ultra-repressive regime, which winds up seeing the seraglio sent into exile. They're all escorted by caravan out of the city to be presented to the sultan of another city, to be basically sold. Among the seraglio, however, is an assassin with her own plans. When their captors are killed, the women must decide what they will do in the desert. They can't go back, can't go forward, and there's nothing in the desert but sand and death. They survive though, and over time actual flourish. But it's not without turmoil and trials, and after a time, they are faced with the prospect of being hunted down by the new sultan.
The Steel Seraglio is really a story about ... well, stories. The novel is presented in a sense through one woman, Rem, who is a librarian who bleeds ink. It's an evocative image that plays out throughout the story, but it's not necessarily her story. There is a cast of thousands, with several managing to stand out among the crowd without it all becoming overwhelming. There are digressions aplenty in this book, as the histories of characters and their true motives are revealed, as well as unique blendings of fate, fantasy, and even a little humor.
The book might seem like a jumble in the early goings, but it is downright enchanting by the end, and the tension that plays out is palpable. I had a great time immersing myself in this novel, and it stands out as one of the best offerings I've read from Chizine so far. The story of how Mike, Linda, and Louise came up with the story is nearly as fascinating too, which you can read by clicking here. Then, you can go find this book for yourself.