The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey. ★★★★1/2
Occasionally I’ll come across a book that’ll have me saying, “Yes, THIS is what I want from the fantasy genre.” The Steel Seraglio is one such book.
When a violent coup shakes the city of Bessa, the sultan’s 365 concubines find themselves in the hands of a religious zealot who has no use for them. They are first exiled and then ordered dead. But the women of Bessa’s harem have their own plans.
The Steel Seraglio sort of feels like Mad Max: Fury Road crossed with Valente’s In the Night Garden. The narrative isn’t always straight forward, but sometimes includes nested tales as in the manner of One Thousand and One Nights. Such tales may be anything from stories spun by one character or another or a look into a central character’s backstory. The story isn’t fast paced by any means, but the prose is lyrical and descriptive and the sometimes meandering narrative is tied together by the more straight forward narrative of the community the women form.
The Steel Seraglio is not the story of a single man or woman but instead the story of a community. Combined with the narrative structure, this made it feel like a mosaic, with each piece coming together to form a greater whole. The premise of the book also means that this is a book containing many important women and the relationships between them. I think it may be the first fantasy book I’ve ever read that’s so intrinsically about women working together and forming a community for themselves.
“A question, dear, before we begin. How does a young woman kill three armed men?”
“Clean living and regular exercise, auntie. Also, five years of training in the arts of murder.”
That said, I did grow to love many of the central characters within the span of four hundred pages. Gursoon is an older woman, the de facto leader of the concubines, and possesses a certain wisdom and insight. Zuleika, who after years as an assassin now seeks a greater goal. Anwar Das a thief and bandit who is able to use his wit and gift for lies to benefit the new community. And Rem, a learned seer gifted (or cursed?) by dijnn who can fathom all but her own future.
The Steel Seraglio is not a romance focused book, but the most important romantic relationship was between two women. And (SPOILER) neither dies! I was afraid that one would die from the minute the relationship began, and the fact that my fears were unfounded only makes me love the book more. (END SPOILER)
Oh, and one more reason to love The Steel Seraglio? It contains some beautiful illustrations.
I did have some problems with how the story was constructed. The Steel Seraglio is divided into a Book I and a Book II. Book I felt like it held together better as one story. Book II was only about a hundred pages long and felt sort of like a novella length sequel that’d been added onto the end. I also wonder how the ending matches up with the beginning of the book.
Those comments aside, I can say that The Steel Seraglio is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Honestly, reading it just made me so happy. I have little doubt that this will end up being one of my favorite reads of 2016. I highly recommend it to those looking for a fantasy book in a non-Western setting or with a focus on multiple female characters. Or anyone who just wants a wonderful book.