Review: The Steel Seraglio by Mike, Linda and Louise Carey

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

424 pages, ChiZine Publications, www.chizinepub.com, $17.95

Unfortunately, there is no way to describe a really good fantasy novel to non-fantasy readers without sounding acutely nerdy. Case in point: When the evil ascetic Hakkim Mehdad overthrows decadent Bessan king Bokhari Al-Bokhari and casts the kingdom’s 365 concubines out into the desert, he doesn’t suspect they will return, years later, hardened, to re-capture their kingdom for the SERAGLIO of STEEL! Or again: The Seraglio of Steel is essentially a feminist revision of The Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade—not a virgin—simply kills her captor and rallies her fellow captives to overthrow their suppressors’ kingdom.

But the nerdiness of description is only a minor tragedy: Seraglio is awesome. It’s awesome as both an intricately told pre-historical epic and a good old character-driven novel. Authors Mike, Linda and Louise Carey, a father-mother-daughter team who live, eat and subvert the epic together in their shared London home, weave an intergenerational saga of the rise and fall of a fictional lost city of women around the concrete characters who affect—and are affected by—those revolutions. The Careys expertly alternate the ongoing life stories of major characters, such as lady assassin-cum-concubine-cum-leader of the women’s army, with minor characters such as the palace chef, who chronicles the transition from decadence to ascetism to democracy by the state of the royal menu. The details of those large and small stories combine to create a grand impression that the larger story is being told at once from all scales huge and tiny.

For a collective effort—remarkable because is it is a collective effort—the tales of Seraglio are tightly connected. Every detail, eventually, proves necessary and accounted for. And that’s important, because Seraglio, like The Arabian Nights that inspired it, is less about the actual stories told and more about the power of storytelling to erase or elucidate the revolutions of history, depending on who’s telling.

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