The Steel Seraglio flirts with the danger of Western authors appropriating Middle Eastern culture to patronizing ends—a criticism levelled at Craig Thompson's beautiful but flawed Habibi. But Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey—husband, wife, and daughter—clarify their ideas in the rich tradition of Middle Eastern folklore like butter in a pan, scorching away any nascent orientalism. What's left is universal in its appeal and precise in its humanism. In this, the novel resembles the folktales it takes after, flavored with the timelessness of fantasy—a confident One Thousand and One Nights for our present.
This timelessness proves an intelligent way to engage with the dangers of dogmatism without falling into the trap of exclusionary politics. It allows the authors to avoid overt references to present-day ideologies and religions by establishing a prehistory that precedes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as we know it. Mike Carey has said that he and his coauthors wanted to play off “real world expectations of gender relations.” This is after all a story of Bessa, the “City of Women”—how it became so, and why it doesn't actually exist in this or any other time.
Bessa's transformation into the City of Women begins when moderate Sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari is executed and replaced by fanatical zealot Hakkim Mehdad and his Ascetics, who “shunned the pleasures of the world, but hounded those who lived by them.” The dead Sultan's harem of 365 exiled concubines must find a way to escape across the desert and reclaim their city from his tyrannical rule. In doing so, they create a place that is a symbol of freedom, one “ahead of [its] time” and ahead of ours too.