The Fourth Queen
by Debbie Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Fourth Queen / 1-4000-4925-3
Each chapter in "The Fourth Queen" alternates between the two main characters - Helen, who is shown to us in the third person, and Microphilus, who is given to us in the form of a first person diary narrative. Microphilus is the chief 'eunuch' in the harem of the Emperor, and a dwarf. Dangerously, he is secretly "intact", and not a eunuch at all. Helen, the most recently acquired harem girl, is a self-centered red-haired girl from Microphilus' beloved homeland. When Microphilus falls in love with Helen, he struggles to court her away from her infatuation with the Emperor.
This love triangle, between the sympathetic Microphilus, the self-centered Helen, and the charming yet psychopathic Emperor, is set against the further intrigue that the Emperor's wives (of whom he is allowed four) are slowly being cursed, or sickened, with a mysterious ailment that disfigures and maims the women, yet does not kill them. Of course, when Helen is installed as the newest queen and immediately sickens, Microphilus is doubly motivated to solve the mystery and restore his loved one to good health.
"The Fourth Queen" is a surprisingly compelling read. Microphilus is one of the most sympathetic literary characters I've encountered recently - loving and desiring Helen from afar, desperate to please her, saddened that his physical body repels her while the Emperor's cruel personality does not. Helen, though she is eminently shallow and self-centered, nevertheless has valid reasons for being so - trapped as she is in a world where her very life depends on pleasing the men who hold power over her. If she selfishly desires jewels and riches, it is because she craves some semblance of security in her chaotic world. And the Emperor is realistically two-faced - cruel by turns, but with a charming facade for his favorite women. The backdrop of the mysterious illness is compellingly written, with multiple reasonable causes and suspects. Certainly, the resolution of the mystery, and of the love triangle, will keep the reader's interest sustained until the finish. All in all, a very enjoyable read.
As far as potentially objectionable content, like most harem novels, this isn't something you want to leave lying around for the children to stumble on. However, the scenes in "The Fourth Queen" are comparatively tame, involving mostly erotic dance to please the Emperor, and some straightforward homosexuality between the love-starved girls in the harem. There is also a description of a rather medieval abortion in this book.
~ Ana Mardoll
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