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.
In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade keeps her husband King Shahryar from executing her after their wedding night (to prevent her from fulfilling the promiscuity he sees as inherent in women) by telling him stories. In The Steel Seraglio, Rem, the seer and librarian of Bessa, tells the story of the City of Women to us, her readers, to keep the idea of it alive so that it may lie “dormant in dreams.” In the tradition of popular art that bridges the literary, the mythic, and the modern (like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Bill Willingham’s Fables, or Mike Carey’s own The Unwritten), this is a story about stories.
Scheherazade’s stories ward off violence, a signifier of repression and intolerance. Rem’s story of Bessa holds back the reality that the city cannot survive in a war-torn world. The Bessa that the liberated concubines strive to create is a city that “has no need for sultans, nor for queens; its figureheads are its artists, its craftswomen, and its poets.” The framing device—here and in One Thousand and One Nights—illuminates the value of art as a counterweight against humanity’s more brutal tendencies. That art is considered feminine and violence masculine is, of course, at the root of what this book is getting at. Sex and violence, art and war, are necessary binaries. The concubines participate in war to reclaim their city and defend it. Bessa’s citizens are men and women both. But in our world, where the consensus of cultures still values masculinity over femininity and war over art and knowledge, Bessa will always be a City of Women, and thus doomed to fantasy.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a didactic novel, or a dourly pessimistic one. It’s instead a marvelous defense of intellectual freedom and—yes—popular culture. Because pop culture is a global consensus of sorts that exists outside the divisive lines of ideologies and nations, it’s where ideas have the most value, the widest reach. By definition it’s the most democratic, collaborative, and accepting of cultures—one where ideas like Bessa are best kept alive till they can be realized. The Steel Seraglio knows the conventions of popular genres and media like folktales and comics, romances and fantasies, and it deploys them perfectly to keep from sagging under its considerable intellectual ambition. Nimit Malavia’s gorgeous, fluid illustrations further punctuate the novel with comic-book vibrancy.
As a young Hakkim learns when his earnest preaching is drowned out by the “crowd-pleasing” mockery of another speaker who can “[switch] from comic to didactic mode without so much as a pause,” not boring your audience is vital. The Careys know this: See Mike’s excellent work in comics like Lucifer, or his Felix Castor novels. Their prose is poetic in its swiftness and economy, mythic and contemporary at the same time, sewn with warmth and humor. Their characters, male and female, shine with empathic ardor, personalizing the story’s legendary sweep. With remarkable elegance, the Careys have enriched meta-fictional allegory into furious pop entertainment—full of sex, passion, violence, and magic. The Steel Seraglio is razor-sharp, cutting straight through the bullshit of bigotry to tell a fun, resonant story.
Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey’s The Steel Seraglio will be released on March 13 by ChiZine Publications. To purchase it, click here.