I would have to preface this review by stating The Steel Seraglio, by Carey, Carey and Carey, is an ambitious work, a literary etude or variation on the legendary collection of Islamic tales we've come to know as One Thousand and One Nights. Like its historical counterpart, it is a tale within many tales, complete with unreliable narrator, and with an oblique homage to some of the original characters (al-Rashid and Jafar among them).
The overarching story, that of a discarded seraglio of some 365 concubines, is one that has a very modern, very feminine resonance, and is written with such elegance it is as incisive and horribly fascinating as Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.
To summarize, a fundamentalist zealot overthrows the sultan of the city of Bessa, slaughters the royal wives and children, and turns off the seraglio to a neighbouring grandee. As the seraglio crosses the desert, harbouring one male, royal survivor, the usurping zealot, Hakkim Mehdad discovers the treachery of the seraglio and sends out troops to annihilate them.
What ensues is a cunning escape, a temporary reprieve among desert thieves, and a triumphant recapture of Bessa. The seraglio of perfume and delicacy has become one of steel, and together the women create an economic and political power that becomes legend throughout the lands.
But as with every paradise, there is doom, in this case in the form of the disinherited royal prince, Jafar. This second tale is one of faceted tragedies.
The main story is beautifully realized, intelligent, witty, evocative of the parched heat of the desert and the olfactory indulgence of the spice markets. It lives and breathes.
However--and yes there is an however--some of the supplemental stories, woven throughout, are told with a very modern voice, almost flippant in delivery and so completely foreign to the elegance of the main body of work, that I found these passages intrusive. Indeed, they entirely arrested the flow of the work and the pacing of action. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, I couldn't give The Steel Seraglio the five stars it would have otherwise merited.
Even so, that one criticism aside, The Steel Seraglio is one of the fine literary novels of 2012.