The Steel Seraglio
by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey, and Nimit Malavia
Cover Artist: Erik Mohr
Review by Drew Bittner
ChiZine Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781926851532
Date: 13 March 2012 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Bokhari al-Bokhari is well supplied with concubines; he has one for every day of the year. But this kind and rather lazy ruler's reign is cut brutally short by Hakkim Mehdad and his violent zealots. Exiled and left to their own devices in the harsh desert, the women of al-Bokhari's seraglio must become hard as steel if they hope to survive...and retake their home.
In The Steel Seraglio, Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey take the reader on a fantastic journey alongside the women of al-Bokhari's harem. With partial narration by Rem, a seer whose language is rich with anachronisms (one of the hazards of being precognitive), the stories in this volume detail the exile, struggles and eventual triumph(s) of this uncanny group.
Among the heroines are Zuleika, who hides in the fallen city of Bessa to enact her own agenda of vengeance, and Gunsoon, the wise older concubine whose force of will holds the group together. But theirs are not the only stories—given that there are 365 concubines, as you can imagine, there are many tale that can be told.
Structured much like the classic 1001 Arabian Nights, and just as full of wonder, the novel wastes no time establishing the premise: the lazy, gentle Bokhari is overthrown by Hakkim, a religious zealot. Hakkim is no cardboard cutout of a villain, however; we are shown his strict, even brutal upbringing, forged to be a weapon against those who do not believe enough. And among his first victims are the women, who are turned out into the desert.
Facing a battle simply to survive, the women also encounter bandits and other dangers of the wilderness. Along the way, they learn to depend on each other, overcoming petty rivalries and setting aside grudges--even if only briefly--in pursuit of their goals. They also learn not only to use the skills they already had, in highly clever ways, but master combat skills they never imagined needing. For some, knowledge is liberating; for others, it is only another burden.
But if they hope to survive, these women must forge themselves into more than a harem, more than a collection of women--they must become an army, bent on retaking what is rightfully theirs and settling a score with Hakkim.
How that comes to pass is truly worthy of epic storytelling.
Though Mike is perhaps the best-known of the three, with experience in writing novels and comic books, the Careys all bring diverse strengths to this tale, the pieces of which fit neatly together and form a spectacular whole. Rather than creating another epic set in a generic medieval Europe, this story takes place in a setting that will open readers' eyes to the possibilities of Arabian-flavored fantasy. Their Bessa is a vividly realized city, and even the dunes and oases suggest great history. Worldbuilding is an underappreciated skill with many writers, but the Careys have done a marvelous bit of work here.
But a setting is only a place for action to happen. The story is peopled with women so different and yet so well constructed that readers will feel they know them in a handful of pages. Each one has dreams, ambitions, regrets and hopes...and how those are realized (or not) makes the story compelling.
The Steel Seraglio is a masterful, engaging and utterly fascinating story by three wonderful writers. One can only hope they will collaborate again, as this project has proven how well they work together. The reader is really the winner here.