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REVIEW: The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey

Title: The Steel Seraglio
Author: Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey
Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A mythic novel-in-stories that maintains a fast, unified pace

Several years ago, I discovered N.M. Penzer’s The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, which opened my eyes to the fascinating history of the Ottoman sultan’s harem. What could be more fertile soil for an awesome story than a group of educated women from diverse backgrounds, locked away by a patriarchal society yet with intimate access to the heart of political, military, and religious power, and simultaneously grooming the next generation of the same? The real intrigue and blood-soaked history of the Ottoman Empire’s seraglio might well be called “implausible” if it were to show up in a fantasy novel, but with my pre-existing fascination, the moment I saw a book entitled The Steel Seraglio, I had to read it.

The Steel Seraglio is an impressively structured and well-executed fantasy that follows the experiences of three hundred sixty five concubines who – when their sultan is overthrown by an ascetic zealot – find themselves exiled into the desert, fighting for their lives, and their futures.

The Steel Seraglio is loosely structured as a novel-in-stories recounted by Rem, a librarian from the harem’s home city. With its mythic feel and folktale overtones, I was strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale and Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge. However, The Steel Seraglio is more accessible and features more consistent momentum than either of these titles. Like most novels-in-stories, it features both nested and discrete, self-contained tales, but in this case each addresses and expands upon the conflict at the heart of this book: the concubines’ battle for self-determination.

The book opens with not one but two prologues, which is an interesting and rather unusual choice. The prologues firmly establish the book’s mythic tone, give a good sense of its flowing, evocative descriptions, and introduce us to the Careys’ daring technical choices. The first of the two prologues transports us to a dry, desert environment and establishes a decidedly non-Western, patriarchal culture heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions. At this point, it is entirely unclear whether we are dealing with a secondary world fantasy or find ourselves in some strange quasi-historical environment.

The first prologue does a good job of communicating the flavor of the novel, introducing us to both a setting and style that heavily reminded me of The Arabian Nights and The Shahnameh. Considering how much I like both, and how rare it is to find fantasy which eschews quasi-medieval northern European settings, The Steel Seraglio was quite refreshing.

The second of the two prologues further introduces us to our narrator, the librarian Rem, and lays out some of the background essential to the novel which follows. At the same time, this second prologues shifts to a slightly different, more self-aware narrative voice that strategically abandons some of the mythic tone – and it is this shift in voice that most caught my eye, as a bold and risky stylistic gamble that I felt ultimately paid off.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed both prologues on their own terms, I found the first to be one of the weaker parts of an otherwise strong novel. As mentioned above, the Careys successfully avoid the trap of most novels-in-stories by ensuring that each embedded tale shares and focuses on the novel’s driving conflict. Of all of the disparate sections of the book, the first prologue alone ignores this central conflict. While it does a good job of grounding the reader in tone, style, and setting through some wonderfully evocative writing, when considered as the first movement in the larger score, I felt it to be somewhat out of place. The second prologue, however, does a good job of easing us into the book’s central conflict.

The rest of the book maintains the prologues’ lush descriptions and combines them with a momentum-charged focus on character and conflict. The over-arching story is of how the sultan’s concubines are exiled after a coup d’état, and how they carve out self-determination for themselves. The story skillfully focuses on the experiences of the harem’s leaders (and those of the narrator Rem herself).

The principal characters are a delight: the pragmatic wisdom of the elderly Gursoon, the icy passion of the assassin-cum-concubine Zuleika, the terrifying zealotry of the usurper Hakkim Mehdad, the hilarious cunning of the camel thief Anwar Das, or the self-absorbed immaturity of the surviving prince Jamal are a delight on the page. I found the narrator’s own story a little self-absorbed for my taste, but this is not actually a weakness: the character remained well-drawn and interesting. I just found the others more compelling. Despite the myriad characters, and their many embedded stories, the Careys do an excellent job of capturing the conflicting, complicated, messy, and beautiful relationships of a disparate group thrust into one another’s orbits by powers beyond their control. The fact that the characters are so rich and varied is a testament to the Careys’ skill, and is the primary pillar on which the book’s success rests.

The narrative voice is interesting, and takes a notable (and ultimately successful) risk: the narrator, Rem, is gifted by the djinni with the ability to see possible futures. She is a seer, and a librarian, and a storyteller, embedded in of her own mythic time while cognizant of our somewhat more egalitarian future. The seer character is a trope much over-used in fantasy, but the Careys freshen it with a realistic conceit: with her ability to see into the future, Rem’s voice becomes peppered with anachronisms. Idioms and words that have no business in a mythic tale salt her prose: in the second paragraph of the second prologue, we are told that for a seer who can see the future “Tenses get a bit confused…and unravelling them again can be a bitch.” This departure from the somewhat florid style so commonly associated with myth is shocking, and I found it refreshing.

This is a daring choice of technique, because it risks our immersion in the story: at first blush, we read The Steel Seraglio as a mythic, folktale style narrative. The prose is evocative, lush, flowing: it reads like legend. But by inserting contemporary, anachronistic constructions into otherwise mythic prose, we are forced to reconsider and reevaluate the words and themes introduced by the story. The effect may be jarring. Although some readers might find that it lessens the sense of mythic immersion the prose otherwise produces, I found that the technique was used sparingly enough, and with just enough strategic precision, to heighten my own sense of immersion. After all, wouldn’t someone perceptually unmoored from their own time end up with some rather odd verbal tics? Because the Careys play this narrative device straight, making Rem’s anachronistic tics and stories strange or incomprehensible to her own contemporaries, the effect heightens the world’s remove from our contemporary mores, enhancing the gap between the novel’s patriarchal world and our own.

Just as the novel’s non-traditional setting is refreshing, so too is its thematic focus on women and their self-determination in a patriarchal society. This is the kind of theme that fantasy, a genre stereotypically known for its lantern-jawed (male) heroes, too rarely addresses. While the book wears its feminist themes on its sleeve, the Careys avoid the polemical trap by focusing on the complicated and at times messy emotional journeys that their (predominantly female) characters must take. As a result, the (perhaps obvious) themes are treated with a skill, compassion, and empathy which diffuses and dramatizes any moralizing agenda.

The core thrust of the novel is divided into two “books” within the larger novel, a “Book the First” and a “Book the Second”. While both are well-told, well-structured, and maintain a well-paced momentum, I found that the second of these two books felt somewhat rushed. It focuses on the consequences of the events of the first, but it does so in a much more sweeping, view-from-thirty-thousand-feet fashion than the first eighty percent of the novel. In some respects, as a work of history within the fictional narrative, it works well. And my discomfort with this approach may simply stem from the fact that I wanted to spend more time in the Careys’ world, and in the city of Bessa, and with the characters they introduced me to. But nevertheless, I found it felt to some degree like an attempt at a duology crammed into one volume.

Overall, The Steel Seraglio is a delight. Fans of mythic fantasy like Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale or Frost’s Shadowbridge will likely enjoy both its characterization and evocative description, while readers looking for a fun, action-packed story can find the same in its fast-moving pace. The weaknesses I saw, whether in its initial prologue or in the rushed second book, are on the whole quibbles: the book is great fun, and a rich, lovely work of art. The excellent interior illustrations by Nimit Malavia further add to its artistry, though from a design standpoint the artistry might have been heightened by illustrations more evocative of or otherwise tied to the Arabian, Persian, or Ottoman traditions which feature so strongly in the text itself, and in the excellent cover by Erik Mohr.

The Steel Seraglio is a wonderful, resonant book and I would love to see more such novels from its authors, illustrator, and publisher.

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