by Fiona McIntosh
Eos Books, Copyright 2005 by Fiona McIntosh
That about sums up my description of Odalisque. The first volume of McIntoshs The Percheron Saga, this book brings together well-developed characters, logic and consistency with then setting, an interesting storyline, and true wordsmithing. The book is a joy to read.
This book is only nominally your typical sword-and-sorcery. Yes, the setting is where swords may be the weapon of choice, and magic is a part of the landscape, but this novel goes far beyond the typical fare. McIntoshs Percheron is not the typical pseudo-European medieval environment. Percheron is more of an Ottoman-inspired setting, which opens up intriguing political and social situations to explore, such as that of harems, eunuchs, palace guards, justice, and the like which are not available in standard sword-and-sorcery tales. (Although not in Odalisque but rather in the second volume of the saga, Emmissary, the conflict between the Percherons and a more Arab-influence group of the same overall religious beliefs who feel the Percherons have drifted off the true path can be taken as a deep commentary on current Persian/Arab differences.)
The story centers on some main characters as they deal with a religious conflict. The Goddess Lyana is resurrected every thousand years or so, and she is fought by Zarab, a male god. Over the last few millennium, Zarab has triumphed, and the worship of Lyana has faded throughout Percheron in favor of the worship of Zarab. The story begins as events unfold to start this cycle once more.
The cast of characters include Lazar, a former slave who has risen to be the head of Percherons military, Ana, a young girl brought into the harem for the new 15-year-old Zar, Boaz. Boazs mother, Herazah, works to influence her son and try and maintain her own power. Her ally/nemesis is a huge eunuch, Salmeo, the Grand Master of the harem. Boaz and Lazar rely on Pez, a dwarf who fakes insanity to everyone else.
As Lyana prepares for her appearance, her allies start to maneuver to assist her ascendancy. Zarab, meanwhile, sends in the immortal Maliz, a demon who can take over someones persona, to be ready to destroy Lyana.
What makes this story work so well is McIntoshs ability to weave a logical and believable storyline in a colorful and clever universe. Her characters are very well fleshed out, and all of them have degrees of both good and evil. None of them are one-dimensional. And as in her Quickening trilogy, being a main character in a McIntosh tale does not assure ones survival.
Percheron is an often violent place. Some of the scenes are horrifying, such as a castration of a young slave. People are readily tortured and executed. That the violence never seems gratuitous is a tribute to Mcintoshs skill in writing. These actions are a normal part of the society.
One thing that is so rewarding to me is to observe McIntoshs evolution from being a fantastic wordsmith to a fantastic writer. In the Quickening trilogy, McIntoshs way with words was very evident. She was and is a true master. But while that and her story landscape were outstanding, her characterizations and storylines were a little more standard for fantasy novels, in my opinion. Dont get me wrong. I loved that trilogy. But with The Percheron Saga, McIntosh has upped her game to join the very top echelon of writers. Not just fantasy writers, but all writers.
The Percheron Saga is selling quite well worldwide, but not as well in the US (her Quickening trilogy sold very well in the US). The author was told by some US booksellers that this might be the Middle-Eastern setting which turns some Americans away. This is a travesty. No current political leanings should keep people away from this series, and even if political leanings were evident, so what? This is a fictional novel, for goodness sake! It is not a treatise on Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It is just a book set in an Ottoman-like setting. As a Marine vet who served in Iraq, I can write with 100% conviction that there is absolutely nothing in the trilogy which is offensive or should turn anyone away.
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