Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review: The Steel Seraglio

Every now and then, a book comes along with a quiet power and dignity.  The Steel Seraglio is one of those books that will have gone under the radar for a majority of worldwide readers, but it shouldn't.  The book is fairly complex in its themes, characters, and even plot due to reasons soon to be expounded.  What is also striking is its ability to not acknowledge any genre boundaries.  It is written much like an ancient document, detailing the lost city of Bessa in the Middle East, but it draws from historical fiction/alternate history, as well as magical realism, all lending to an unnerving, gripping, thrilling, and unexpected page turner.  Though it's given these qualities of historical fiction and magical realism, it also brings forth the epic fantasy vibe, though not so much as journey of a fellowship of different races trying to save a world.  Rather, this is the story of the concubines a seraglio, or harem, of the fictional city of Bessa's sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari.

Al-Bokhari and his wives and legitimate children with said wives are killed by a religious extremist Hakkim, who is also a trained assassin.  He believes it his destiny to eradicate all debauchery and sin from Bessa.  The seraglio managed to persuade Hakkim to send them as a gift to a neighboring sultan through the techniques they'd always used on political figures and men to do their bidding in subtle arts.  But the women of the seraglio have a different idea: take back Bessa.  Read on for a complete review, spoiler-free but very in-depth.

Foremost is the structure of the book.  Its composition, like that of its genre-bending, is given much freedom and knows no boundaries, telling the story how it sees fit.  Some character histories are told as folk tales by the characters themselves, one chapter is told through a meeting's recorder notes, but the most intriguing chapters are those in Rem's voice.  Rem, being a seer, is a woman whose timelines become jumbled.  She knows every language of the future and of the past, and it confuses her just as much as those around her, so when she breaks into modern language and idioms, they are natural to the character, but completely jarring to read in context.  It makes for a slightly uncomfortable and unnerving read when Rem is foremost.  She is perhaps most central to the story, and it most fitting that she is, because this is her record of events of the lost city of Bessa.

Similarly, the language is an element at play.  Each character's voice is different and reflective of their own character.  Zuleika is reserved and spare with words, but she is blunt when she does speak, and it is often awkward.  Rem's, though jarring, is poetic and puzzling, as she is made of words (read and you'll understand).  She is guardian of words and knowledge, which is the key to the world.  Jamal, the sultan's remaining heir, sounds very much like a spoiled child, which is quite fitting.  Gursoon, the older wise woman of the group, uses flowing and persuasive language, elegant and calming, reflective of her diplomatic personality.  And the words of Anwar Das are similar to Gursoon's, but more tricksy.  He is, after all, a con artist, able to talk his way out of a situation or into one.  The dialogue never breaks character.

What's most striking about this novel is the ability to create well-rounded characters.  It's not just one-dimensional warrior women, and many of them aren't at all warrior women, but each plays a part in the war.  Each woman in the seraglio has a role, a talent, a voice, and a personality.  The Careys provide ample character development, and each character, even the minor characters, noticeably change halfway through the novel and even moreso by the end.  The fleshed out characters make them seem all the moree real, like they really existed.  And they make me want to believe that they did exist in some way.

The themes are of a most delicate balance.  Gender politics are a most significant theme, of course, but it goes beyond that to create a fulfilling and discussion-worthy novel.  Political and theological themes play just as an important part as themes of finding oneself when away from social binds.  These women forge a new society among themselves and those they come to know as outcasts in the desert.  They now know each other like never before.  They discover hidden talents and new friendships.  They become themselves, the selves they never knew existed.  And they're all equal and all have a voice.  They become essentially an anarchist commune, developing trades.  They built their utopian society upon the foundations of peace, diplomacy, democracy, guile, civil rights, and individualism.  The book is not necessarily against religion, but it shows the lengths religious extremists will go to in order to do what they believe is right.  To counteract religious extremism, Rem provides and promotes knowledge.  She teaches the entire seraglio to read and saves scrolls from destruction because the first things to be taken out are intellectuals and education.  They promote power to the individual.  It is this theme that I find equally appealing: intelligence vs. ignorance and the consequences each can bring.

I must mention the beautiful art.  The cover is striking and haunting, dark and antiquated.  But the art does not stop there.  The interior pages hold wonderful artistic renderings of some of the core characters between chapters.  They play out less like antique portraits, as the cover displays, and more like a comic book or film storyboard. 

The book is a new classic epic with theatrical potential.  Its perfect dialogue, enthralling characters, thrilling and horrible dangers, minute mysticism, and thoughtful themes make for an engaging read.  Do yourself a favor and buy The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey immediately. 

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