The City of Silk and Steel by Mike, Linda & Louise Carey
OUT NOW in HB
Once, in a city called Bessa, there was a sultan who was over throne by religious zealots, lead by Hakkim Mehdad, who didn’t like the way the sultan and his people enjoyed themselves. The sultan’s wives and children were slaughtered and his 365 concubines were banished and sent to a neighbouring caliph as a tribute. But something threatened the banished concubines and everything changed.
Imagine you are in the desert and a group of you are sat around a fire and someone starts telling a story about a City of Women. You may think from the way the narrator tells the story of exiled concubines that it is just a tale that has no basis in reality and to be fair it does start as just as story. But our narrator, the librarian Rem, tells us how a city of women came to be and what they did afterwards.
The City of Silk and Steel is this story but it’s built from asides and reflections and futures of those involved and as it grows you end up seeing the full picture.
Even though you could think of it as an Arabian Nights style tale due to its setting and the classical feel it captures. The Careys have managed to take what may have been a safe linear tale and push themselves into holding a reader’s attention as they pause, re-tell, give backstories, and make you as interested in the events of the characters lives have lead them here as to where they find themselves now.
An example of this is the titles of some the tales. Some are more ambiguous than others for example ‘Tales Whose Application is Mostly Tactical: Bethi’ versus ‘Giver of Gifts’. One of my favourites stories is ‘The Cook’s Story’ as it includes recipes but they are used to make a point. They show the contrast between the old Sultan and Hakkim and how the ascetic movement has effected the kitchens and the merchant’s who supply it. This technique adds a quality that is rare in most stories though to be fair most stories wouldn’t sustain this type of narration.
It works here as there is no main character as such, unless you’d define it as the city of Bessa, instead you have characters who are important to the tale. There are those that make decisions like Zuleika who changed the entire direction of the women’s lives, Gursoon who makes sure they survive Zuleika’s actons, Rem not only narrates but gives commentary on events as she was there affecting them not in small part due to her sight of the past, present and future. Then there is Anwar Das who grows to be much more than a camel thief. There are other characters and other stories including the act of kindness that the women will come to regret in the end.
But it does show rightly that you can have all sorts of strong female characters and what women can achieve. When the tale starts most, but not all, of the women have no other recognisable skills than those needed to survive their role as concubines, which involve not only looking after the sultan’s physical needs but ensuring, along with his wives, that they diplomatically cool his fires when he could make rash decisions.
But as they need to survive outside the city their underused (and unacknowledged) skills have to be used and honed in order to trade as well as fight when needed. And this the heart of The City of Silk and Steel and the source of its title. The silk is the women and their soothing nature and the steel is the fight inside them and both are needed. Though it may not be enough but not for the reasons that you may think. A city run by women is a very successful one but compassion is sometimes a weakness.
The ease with which regime change occurs may be have some readers pausing to wonder why it wasn’t harder but then again it’s a story that plays out over several years and its focus is on the characters not particularly on capturing a true ‘reality’. The narrator freely admits that is a story not a historical record though it is both.
It is the record of Bessa but also a story about Bessa.
I was truly enchanted by The City of Silk and Steel. The narrative style is refreshing. The way in which the story passes back and forth. The changes in focus. The way it builds. And the devastating way it ends. You may think that it’s bound to be a happy tale. It is in lots of ways as the women are practical but even that isn’t enough.
The Carey’s sometimes gloss and lubricate in some places where more grit and resistance would make the journey feel tougher but when it matters they don’t hold back. You want the women to beat the odds. You know the dangers of what they are doing and all you can do is read and wait.
If you like classical feeling fantasy tales with modern complexities, which is enchanting, captivating and enjoyable then The City silk and Steel should be top of your list.