This book is amazing.
I was transported - completely - to the world of the story.
Here's the description from the publisher's website:
The sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari of Bessa has 365 concubines—until a violent coup puts the city in the hands of the religious zealot Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim has no use for the pleasures of the flesh: he condemns the women first to exile and then to death. Cast into the desert, the concubines must rely on themselves and each other to escape from the new sultan’s fanatical pursuit. But their goals go beyond mere survival: with the aid of the champions who emerge from among them, they intend to topple the usurper and retake Bessa from the repressive power that now controls it. The assassin, Zuleika, whose hands are weapons. The seer, Rem, whose tears are ink. The wise Gursoon, who was the dead sultan’s canniest advisor. The camel-thief, Anwar Das, who offers his lying tongue to the concubines’ cause. Together, they must forge the women of the harem into an army, a seraglio of steel, and use it to conquer a city. But even if they succeed, their troubles will just be beginning—because their most dangerous enemy is within their own number . . . .
Like Mike Carey's rather brilliant The Unwritten (for DC/Vertigo - you should be reading this if you aren't already) The Steel Seraglio is a story about stories. Points of view are shifted as different narrators take over to tell the reader what happened. Each of the main characters has depth, is well-formed, and changes along the way. The two semi-significant male characters are less defined in comparison to the women and that's fine because it serves the story.
The villains are also male and reprehensible because they cannot believe that women could actually pose them any threat. Their superiority is what fuels them though one is driven more by belief than any real sexism.
And now we come to what may be the biggest issue for some (at least according to some critics on the internet): it's not set in Western culture. After all, how can Western writers really understand the Eastern mind and tell stories that are meaningful? How can we, as Western readers, want to read those sorts of stories? What's our way in?
Well, obviously - maybe only to me, it's the story itself.
I picked up the book because I've read a lot of Mike Carey's other work and all (I think) of his novels. I've especially enjoyed his off-beat comics like Crossing Midnight and the Felix Castor novels which reminded me of his Hellblazer run. As I read the back cover copy of Seraglio I was not just intrigued, but enthralled with the idea of exploring the possibility of 365 concubines taking on the males of their world.
While I was reading, the Careys use language in ways that are intriguing and so unfamiliar to me that it reenforced the world of the story and the time of its setting. I can't confirm that they've invented new words or terms but it certainly seemed like it. Additionally, the fact that the voices change with the narrators is an enhancement rather than a detriment. They've done an excellent job in keeping their voices out of it in favor of letting the characters take over. I can't tell you which parts were written by Mike and which weren't. It didn't matter, anyway. I was swept completely into the story.
And, having finished it, I had a helluva lot of fun reading. The religion is never mentioned by name and I suspect that a good many of the cities named in the book are invented as is the name of the god of the story: the Increate. (If I'm wrong about this, my apologies. However when I searched, 'increate' came up as a word, not a concept or deity. It means "not yet created" which added a level to the story. Either way, I'm interested to know if the term is invented or in use somewhere. Let me know.)
This book is very sharp, reads quickly, and took me into a world that I hadn't spent a lot of time in. After all, the desert peoples of the world are fascinating as evidenced by stories like Lawrence of Arabia and Hidalgo. And the reason I mention this book concurrent to those to films is that The Steel Seraglio would make an excellent film. Not only because it's a terribly entertaining read but because it would be good for Americans in particular and the Western world overall, to see a vibrant story about strong, smart, determined women who don't look like they stepped out of Vogue.
I can't recommend this book any more highly. It's a terrific fantasy that's not only well-written but engrossing, intriguing, thought-provoking and ultimately, about how stories are told. As a writer, I can't ask for anything more from any book.