The Gilded Chamber
by Rebecca Kohn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Gilded Chamber / 0-14-303533-9
I cannot help but echo the reviewers who compared this to Falconer's "The Sultan's Harem". The similarities are there - a young woman plucked out of her happy, familiar life in order to sexually service a demanding despot, whilst simultaneously fighting tooth-and-nail against the other "fortunate" girls for a favored position in this unfavorable environment. But here is where Falconer shines and Kohn fades: the reaction of the girl in question to her circumstances.
Falconer's Hurrem smolders with hatred and revenge; she hates the sultan who bought her, she hates the women she is forced to compete with, she hates the country that treats her as chattel to be bought and sold. The fact that she *exacts* revenge is secondary to the vital fact that she *desires* revenge. Kohn's Esther, on the other hand, is placid and sugar-sweet, pitying the women who seek to displace her. Esther's position is never in peril because the author does not allow it to be, and it's a shame because it would be nice to see her reaction to someone who actually threatened to supplant her. However, her character hints that she really wouldn't care one way or another, and even goes so far as to fall in love with the tyrant who kidnapped her.
I'm not sure what we are to make of this. Xerxes is shown in the novel as a despot. He is cruel to his women, even going to far as to brutally rape and seriously hurt one of Esther's close friends in the harem. He is a drunken lout, despised by his own courtiers. He denies Esther anything which makes her happy, monitoring her eating habits and demanding that she spend less time with an adopted daughter in order to focus on making a "legitimate" heir. It is understandable that Esther would want to placate this dangerous entity, but there is nothing here to love. We do not despise Esther for her compliance, but we do despise her for her capitulation: for loving this man who brutalizes her and everything she loves *because* it pleases him to be cruel.
I can only guess why Kohn made this authorial decision, but I suspect that the "love angle" was written in to ensure that a certain segment of the target audience wouldn't be offended - there are, I suppose, certain people who would call Esther's integrity into question if she sleeps with a man she doesn't love. For whatever reason, however, I believe that this decision hurt the novel badly. Instead of an interesting tale of Esther's ingenuity in surviving, thriving, and insinuating herself into a place to save her people, we are given a love-lorn woman who regularly laments that the man she loves is just too stupid, cruel, evil, and awful to be the man she deserves. Thus is a very interesting story reduced to just a bland romance novel.
~ Ana Mardoll
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