Tag Archives: Arabian Nights

Book Review: The Steel Seraglio

seraglio, Arabian Nights, Mike Carey, Louise Carey, Linda Carey, historical fantasy

Available through ChiZine Publications and Amazon.

The Steel Seraglio is published by ChiZine Publications and written by  Louise Carey, Linda Carey and Mike Carey. The Careys ( mother, father and daughter) wrote the book together. Some people may be wondering what a seraglio is as it’s not a common word anymore. It is a harem or the palace of a sultan and well defines both the context and the characters of this book.

I cannot say how wonderful this book is. It is a world of wonderful. It is the djinni uncapped. It truly is the stuff of which dreams are made. If you combined the Arabian Nights and the Canterbury Tales, shook them with a pinch of magic in a djinni bottle, you would come close to the depth and breadth and breathlessness of this novel.  The Steel Seraglio tells the tale of a sultan’s harem, jeopardized when the sultan is overthrown and they are sent into exile, but amongst them is a surviving son of the sultan and the fanatical new sultan’s wrath descends upon them.

Like the Arabian Nights, there are tales within tales here, where a character in the book tells a story of their past or a fantastical mirage to save their necks. These concubines (a year’s worth), though in an ancient and mystical time of Middle Eastern romanticism and attitude, are not just victims and chattels to be owned by men, though many try. They survive by wiles and wits, compassion and passion, and by ruthlessness when needed. Like a seraglio that holds the concubines for one man, this book is a harem of stories woven together to create a society and a history.

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The Steel Seraglio has some interior art by Nimit Malavia.

It is lush and loving, horrific and petty, political and fanatical, mysterious and methodical. Each character, from the wise Gursoon and opinionated Imtisar, from the assassin Zuleika and the scribe-librarian with prescient vision Rem, from the flawed Jamal and rogue Anwar Das, all of these and more become real people, their personalities distinct and human. There are a pastiche of characters and even Stephen King would marvel at the mastery, and Dickens would weep. Some of the people have short roles within the tale but the journey of the City of Women moves through time and place, showing what a community (and a seraglio of once chattels) can become.

These women are strong, brilliant fighters. The moral undercurrent  is  not just a fairy tale of old. For at the very core of The Steel Seraglio is the rights of women to be treated as equals and not be used only as baby machines and whores. Lest someone think this is preaching against certain right-wing movements only in the Mid-East, it rings as true for people anywhere, where men try to lessen women and blame the world’s evils upon them. And if you think that’s farfetched, don’t forget we had a presidential candidate just saythat if a woman is “legitimately raped” her body has a way of shutting out such things and that children are never born of rape. Ignorance and fear still rule and are shown here in different ways by a fanatic psychopath who gains a following, and a disenfranchised dilettante.

The Careys are masterful in their telling, coming up with some brilliant solutions to the problems of survival that the seraglio faces. That each of them (writers in their own right) write different parts that still fit seamlessly together, speaks of a true piece of art. The tales in the book blend recipes with comments, council notes, mythic tales, journal entries, narratives and introspections. In some ways it reminded me of Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, which is  a blend of songs and tales and myths, a gathering of a culture’s ways so that you could read the book in any order. You could read certain chapters in this book and have a complete short story, but there is the tapestry that is formed from the sum of these tales.

I loved this book so much that I took my time reading it so that I could savor it, not wanting it to end, yet it has a perfect ending. The tone changes in the second part, the Book the Second. In the first, it is the struggle and the solidification of Bessan society, where they reach their pinnacle of art and politics, respect and peace. The second book deals with the unmaking of the city and the forces that cause it to change, for like any great civilization, it too has a lifespan. The great Roman Empire crumbled as did ancient Sumer, and the Celtic nations. So too must Bessa move along this path, bringing a poignancy and yet a well-earned place in the great history of the world.

These tales were accessible, enjoyable and made me both think and wonder at what they encompassed. The Careys should be well-please with this magnificent pastiche. Add this one to someone’s stocking for the holidays. I would have to uncork ten bottles and say this is worthy of ten djinnis out of ten.

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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed IV

For anyone just tuning in, this is the fourth and last segment of reviewing Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed. Mitzi chose fairy and folktales from diverse sources. These aren’t just Grimm brothers or Arabian Nights. There are Japanese,  Persian or Sanskrit, a cultural mosaic of stories from sources around the world.

Written in Sanskrit, “A Tale of the Parrot” is an Indian tale where a talking animal relates various lessons or stories, much as Shahrazad did to her husband. An emir’s daughter is wasting away and the Spanish Infanta comes to try a cure, and discovers the Turkish Khan’s (who wants to marry the girl) emissary stirring a cauldron with a stick. The stick is actually his penis, with which he “agitates” the contents of the cauldron. The Infanta helps stir only believing his penis to be a growing stick. Then she takes a cup of the “creamy” broth to the emir’s daughter to break the spell. Now, whether Szereto is completely ignorant of cleanliness taboos of Arabic lands or not, the cleanliness taboos of Europeans would balk at this. Albeit, many of these tales have fetishistic aspects but the Infanta next takes a scrubbed chamberpot to fill. This would be repulsive to many people, even if they’re fine with a young woman drinking goblets of ejaculate.

I was actually surprised to see “Little Red Riding Hood” because, even with erotic rewriting, it’s almost been done to death. It has similarities to myths of gods changing shape, or magical beings consuming a string of victims. Here, “Red” sets off to Grandmother’s house on the lookout for “handsome young huntsmen.” She has a reputation for twirling about, revealing much beneath her skirts, to the workmen who grab their “bulges.” At least this phrasing makes it clear what they’re doing. When she wanders through the woods she actually hikes up her skirt, given as she is to the thrills of exhibitionism. The story follows the more traditional path when viewed in its sexual context, but with some  amusing twists with Red Riding Hood’s exhibitionistic tendencies, and refreshingly few odd twists of phrase.

“The Traveling Companion” is a popular riddle tale, especially in the Scandinavian countries and reworked by Hans Christian Andersen. Poor Johannes is like his counterpart Michel Michelkleiner and his innocence causes his poverty to increase before he has barely set out on the road. He meets an older, more experienced man who has a magic ointment for curing ills, and that he rubs high up under the skirts of an old lady, and a wooden marionette, which leads to the whole puppet troupe being rubbed and coming alive for a flesh and wood orgy. The two travelers learn of a princess whose suitors must answer three riddles and if they lose, they lose their heads.

Johannes uses the ointment to fluster the princess, and his traveling companion does not rely on the ointment alone but folllows the princess to discover her secret. He enters her bedroom where she is sound asleep with her nightdress having ridden up, “exposing a pair of graceful thighs and the corresponding hills above.” I wasn’t sure at first when he starts spanking her if these were her breasts or buttocks, but presuming buttocks, it would have helped to know she reclined on her stomach instead of trying to be tossed out of the story to figure it out. Other than this one aberration, the story is amusing if somewhat black in humor, and though bawdy, not overly erotic.

“The Turnip” brings us to where we began in Cinderella with the turnip (or parsnip) loving stepsisters who used the vegetative length and firmness for sexual diversion. This poor farmer has magical turnip seeds but his own member grows to gigantic turnip proportions and though he wishes to remove it, the king moves him into residence where the man is used for the king’s riding pleasure. This is another story that disturbingly borders on rape and does not meet erotic content so much as sexual abuse.

Also known as Brier Rose “The Sleeping Beauty” has long had an undercurrent of sexuality or even rape, where the prince kisses or impregnates the sleeping princess. Instead of the witch’s curse, Szereto tosses in a lecherous frog and then the story proceeds apace to the prince many years later breaching the brier thorns. By this point I confess to becoming quite annoyed with the bizarre euphemisms and found I was ejected from the tale when the prince lifts the sleeping princess’s dress where, “A pair of gossamer wings began to slowly unfold….the fragile creature was being held back by two fuzz-covered pods,…” What the–? I could not imagine what this was at first and then believing Szereto to mean the clitoris and labia I was dumbfounded. How is this description, even given to hyperbole, slightly erotic? Fuzzy pods? Gossamer wings? Has anyone ever seen genitalia that looked like this?

“The Twelve Months” is the last tale, with a stepmother and sister who envy the pretty daughter and send her off on tasks designed to kill her. She meets 12 men who are the months and tends to their “branches” in three ways. It is somewhat erotic and one of the better stories.

When I started out reading this collection I really thought I’d love it. I like what I know of Mitzi Szereto and I like the retellings of fairy tales (and many originals as well). Granted, eroticism is different for each person, I still find it hard to believe that many people would find these tales sensual at all; they fall more into the category of bawdy, if anything. The euphemistic phrases don’t work because the description is too bizarre, especially for our modern sensibilities. Why Szereto felt the need to follow this style I’m not sure, except maybe to mimic the style of earlier centuries, but why then the anachronistic aspects dropped in without making the whole tale of another era? It’s as if she was still writing these for children, which is not the projected audience at all. I did like the introductions  about the evolution and history of each story, but I would have liked to have seen a reading list or some lists including The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, etc. as well as scholarly works by Zipes or Bettelheim. I believe that Szereto can write but if I was in Sleeping Beauty’s bed, I was left wanting.

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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed III

The second tale “The Magic Muntr,” in Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed interested me more because I’ve read so many versions of Cinderella, from the centuries old through the Disney and Grimm versions to modern and futuristic adaptations and retellings. But “The Magic Muntr” was new to me, a tale from some Persian stories about a man  duped into exchanging his form for a parrot’s.

You could say this is a tale of curiosity killing the cat, and the transformed ruler, because of his inquisitiveness, nearly loses everything to a wicked rakshas posing as a sage. As a bird, he views many things, including women bathing, but details are often lacking where a build-up would benefit an erotic setting. The maharajah is left with a curse of voyeurism.

“The Demon of Adachigahara” is another story of the Far East, this time Japan, and as unfamiliar to me as the one above, which also piqued my interest. This sadistic demon has a penchant for snaring weary pilgrims, especially those  men who bring around (tongue in cheek) religious and inspirational pamphlets. Szereto seems to want to capture a different era, or an anachronistic feeling, and instead of saying covered in black leather she says, “Their muscled flesh had been partially covered with a supple black hide…” But there is a naiveté about each main character that is hard to believe. The male pilgrim, on discovering the chained men “…caressed the bulging arc of flesh held imprisoned by its plaited ring, [and] he found himself being sprayed with the same spumy substance that stained the captive’s costume…”

It starts to become obvious after three stories that Mitzi Szereto isn’t just writing about erotic sex but about different fetishes as we have the shoe fetishist in the first story, then the voyeur, and then sadomasochism. The next story is “Rapunzel,” quite familiar to everyone, and starts with a classic beginning. However, Szereto throws in an anachronistic image against the medieval aspects that grates as opposed to being a good blend. Rapunzel is a rap artist, playing off the name, and though she has a unique way of getting her lover up the tower’s walls, I found the rap aspect so anachronistic that it didn’t make sense nor add anything.

“The Swineherd” is a familiar Grimm’s tale, if not the most well-known, where a nobleman goes in search of a wife, but under disguise as a common man. He falls in love with the scourge-wielding warlord’s daughter and tries to woo her with ingenious, handcrafted tools of the kinky sort. Yet this woman is also ignorant of any man’s genitalia and she sees, in regards to the swineherd’s “scepter” that “For some mysterious reason, the swineherd had stuck a very large purple plum on the end of it…” At least her maids inform her it’s not a plum. The nobleman gets his masochistic dreams fulfilled.

“The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” is similar to the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” of Grimm’s fame. The twelve princesses (or countesses) always have worn out shoes in the mornign.  This story is more successful but again there is an odd hesitance to actually acknowledge the sexual activities and everything is couched in peculiar terms that are not necessarily those of the time period. In fact, I have a book of medieval bawdy tales and the “naughty words” are the same as ours (ass, cunt, shit). The seasoned soldier who solves the mystery dons a black, rubber cape. A rubber cape, especially in another medieval setting, makes me question why. Either modernize the tale or keep the innovations within the context of the time. The soldier is naive of the women’s activity though perhaps this naiveté is for the audience?

“The Ebony Horse” is from The Arabian Nights (a collection far vaster than the complete Grimm tales, which takes up numerous volumes–I have two volumes of selected tales), collected by Sir Richard Burton. I did go and read the original of this to compare it to Szereto’s version. The tale starts out very similar, but shortened and continues with the adventures of the mechanized and magical ebony horse. The sultan’s son is whisked away and eventually meets a beautiful sultan’s daughter, and proceeds to take her up on the horse, where she discovers she enjoys being exhibited naked before others’ eyes. The sultan’s son is also enraptured with her rose petal and for once the euphemisms actually fit the actions and lend to a sensual and poetic tone.

“Michel Michelkleiner’s Good Luck” is an obscure European story about a simpleton’s adventures, which Szereto has extended past gaining his fortune. I found her version disturbing as it begins with Michel’s rape by a group of brigands. Szereto’s style  does  not make it clear that Michel enjoys this forced sexuality, yet he  views the brigand as doing a most “extraordinary jig–or at least it seemed extraordinary to his unversed prey.” But it seems that Michel does indeed come to enjoy their ministrations and so his adventures continue.

Known as King Thrushbeard and Taming of the Shrew, “Punished Pride” is a tale of putting a woman in her place. It is similar to “The Swineherd” in that a rich/noble man disguises himself to win a spoiled/ill-tempered bride. This time she falls for the lowly gardener and leads a life of poverty and work alongside her husband. But her toils take on a lascivious nature when she must attend one lady. Now this noblewoman married her gardener who is the Czar in disguise so they have consummated their marriage and any woman would know what breasts are, yet here is the description of the lady the woman must attend: “…the lady had been endowed with two very large conical objects that she wore proudly upon her chest,…”

She seems somehow innocent of a woman’s anatomy when “No matter how thoroughly she scrubbed at the wriggly knurl she found and the two furry puffs encasing it, her mistress refused to be satisfied.” Maybe, just maybe a storyteller would tell a tale thus to an audience in the 16th century, but somehow the euphemisms get in the way here, as well as being bizarre. Furry puffs? I found I had to stop a moment and try to visualize this. Still, it’s one of the better stories, with more depth of  love and somewhat believable sexual ministrations that do contain erotic content even though the descriptions become more bizarre. As the woman submits to a flogging she looks between her legs (at herself) and sees “…a fiery red flame extending out form her body….exactly like the vermilion tongue belonging to the furry creature that lurked between her former mistress’s thighs.”

Tomorrow, the final part of the review.

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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed II

Mitzi Szereto starts off her collection, In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed, with an introduction to the erotic fairy tales. Here she talks about the influence of cultures and how scholars have discovered that many of the tales can be traced to Asia specifically. There is a long lineage and evolution to the fairy tale, and though many may have come from Asia and India, others were created in other areas, growing out of legends such as the Greek myths, or taking on local flavors. Indeed, there are common motifs and tales found through many lands and whether they were one migratory tale travelling a winding path, or many tales born of similar seeds, it’s hard to say. After all, Jung talked about the cosmic consciousness and how the human intellect tended to evolve or develop at the same time. A person in South America would come to the same revelations as someone in Europe, based on our understandings of the world, and a common foundation of reasoning and problem solving. This theory has proven true in the case of  inventors creating the same thing within the same time as another (or even such basics designs as the Greek key showing up in Aztec/Mayan Americas as well as in Greece).

With an erotic book I would expect the stories to be erotic; titillating or sensually stimulating in some way. Now one erotic tale won’t do it for everyone but there will at least be some tales in a collection that will appeal to a person’s imagination and sensual sensitivities. This book is marketed as erotica and the cover actually gives no hint to the fairy tale context. I imagine this is probably because erotica sells better than fairy tales, where adults might still think that those tales are for children or are some Disneyfied, pristine production. So it makes sense. Cleis is primarily a publisher of erotica and everything is packaged under that heading.

With a book of modern fairy tales I would expect either completely new tales but done in a fairy tale style, or known fairy tales that are skewed or deviate from the original in some compelling way. Some of the standard fairy tale formats are cautionary tales (if you stray from the rules, you’re going to end up in hot water), coming of age tales (you must go through these trials to attain your reward), common man tales (by virtue of quick wits you will conquer all obstacles to get your reward), and virtue tales (if you are good and pure, you will overcome the greater evils pitted against you and get your reward). In the last, the reward is often a prince/husband for the girl. There are other types of fairy tales but those are common themes. As well, fairy tales almost always have some type of magic or magical being in them, whether they’re the Arabian Nights or Grimm’s fairy tales.

I confess that I was somewhat biased before picking up this book. I love fairy tales and I’m certainly not averse to erotica. From what I can tell Mitzi Szereto is intelligent and energetic and takes her craft seriously. This collection contains 15 tales  from a wide range of sources. The introduction ends with Szereto mentioning that the tales captured the imaginations of such writers as Dickens, C.S. Lewis and Bernard Shaw, thought not mentioning Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, or Oscar Wilde who sometimes created their own. She states that, “It is in this very same creative spirit that I continue the age-old tale-telling tradition…, choosing to rely not on the unexpurgated  versions of the past, but rather on those considered suitable for all  eyes–including the eyes of children. By working in this way, I can remove myself from all previous erotic influences and make the tales my own.

I found this slightly odd for an erotic fairy tale book, since the expurgated versions certainly are cauterized in many ways.  If she is writing adult erotica, why start with the family version, but I thought, okay, there are erotic undertones to some of the tales so let’s see what happens. Each tale begins with an introduction, talking about its roots, influences and changes through time.

The first tale is “Cinderella,” an extremely well known story. Early variations had such names as “Aschenputtle,” “La Gatta Cenerentola,”  and “Rashin-Coatie.” In Szereto’s introduction to the tale she goes back to its beginnings in China, as well as discussing the original erotic content (or perhaps lack) in this story, which had me wondering how she could remove herself from the erotic influences if she’s read and done all this research before writing her version. The tale unfolds as we know it, with Cinderella taking care of and dressing her ugly stepsisters. When they run off to the ball Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears, which seems to be a hairy fairy in drag. Why this particular character, I’m not sure. He/she eyes the coachmen in buttless pants. Nothing more happens with the godmother and I found it an odd deviation or embellishment that didn’t further the plot.

Cinderella’s ventures veer to her stepsisters having a fondness for parsnips (and not for eating, which the not so sweet Cinderella laces with peppers) and the prince having more of a fondness for the shoe, where he plunges “the bulky protuberance he had released into the right slipper,” than the woman. Her reward is not so rewarding and I was left…let down. I could see the tongue in cheek humor to this piece but there was little of erotic description and odd usages of words (mounds for breasts) to the point of a bevy of euphemisms. But then this was the first tale and perhaps Szereto was trying to capture the flavor of innuendo and tales of old.

So I moved on to the next one, “The Magic Muntr.” I have many fairy tale books; a complete Grimms tales, various ethnic folktales, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, the modern anthologies by Windling and Datlow, several books on the analysis of tales, several Arabian Nights, etc. However, I have not read all these books. The complete Grimm tales alone is a hefty tome of 279 tales, some only half a page and not too interesting, but extensive nonetheless. So I was intrigued to see this tale and read its history.

Tomorrow, Part III of the review.

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