by Dora Levy Mossanen
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Harem / 0-7432-3021-3
"Harem" is a great example of how *not* to write; this promising novel is completely riddled with Mary Sue characters and "tell, don't show" writing.
The three multi-generational Mary Sues here are Grandmother Rebekah (stunningly violet eyes), Daughter Gold Dust (molten yellow eyes), and Granddaughter Raven (ruby red eyes and silver hair that glows in moonlight). Grandmother Rebekah possesses magical brand in the center of her chest that changes color and shape depending on her moods; the brand was given to her via a hot poker plunged there by her brutish and insane husband. Despite having no training in dance or love-making, she becomes a world-renowned harlot in a matter of a few years, and while she may have to use her body to survive, that doesn't stop her from enjoying her clients.
Daughter Gold Dust, not to be outdone, can consume liquid iron without any harm to herself and her bones literally vibrate music and "sing" when she is happy. She is so beautiful that she captures the attention of the local ruler with little to no effort. Granddaughter Raven is a magical albino; she doesn't have any sun sensitivity, and her only "albino" qualities are the red eyes and silver hair. She matures at an impossibly magical rate, taming wild horses at the age of 5 and sexually initiating herself with adults at the age of 12. She has a cruel streak a mile wide, considers the possibility of her mother's death with total detachment, and is a completely uninteresting one-dimensional character.
Fundamentally, every character in this book is completely static. No one grows or changes in a meaningful way. This is particularly glaring in a multi-generational novel that spans such a long period of time. Rebekah never does anything with her life except advance her daughter's well-being; the indulgent Gold Dust only "loves" the Shah for as long as he is amusing before recklessly pursuing lovers; the impossibly mature Raven ages quickly but never changes: she is constantly an immature imperious child-queen. Major events do not cause room for reflection: Rebekah never wonders if she did the wrong thing in installing her daughter in the harem; Gold Dust never considers if she should be happy with her generous lot in life; Raven never reflects that her mother's death might be anything more than a minor blip on her emotional radar. The characters are untouched by the events around them and are instead propelled blindly forward by the needs of the plot. Supporting characters, such as the Shah, change personality capriciously as the plot requires in order to propel the action.
Several reviews have discussed the sexual content of "Harem". I have absolutely no problem with sexual content, provided that it serves a purpose to the plot. The content in "Harem", however, seems largely provided to fill in blank pages. Rebekah's brutal rape at age 10 seems coldly calculated to maximize "tragic potential". A lesbian scene with "Gold Dust" seems unrealistic and risky - it's not usually a good idea to gamble that a lesbian display will excite your husband in a time period where lesbianism is seen as an indication of a flawed, insane woman. Raven's rape of her father seems completely implausible; there's never any concern that she might suffer his wrath afterward, due to his guilt or revulsion - she just expects to be made the new sultana because of her magical "brains" and "fertility" at 12 years old.
I feel those three scenes serve as illustrations for why the sexuality in this book does not work as a plot device; consider that there are, by my guess, at least a couple dozen similar sex scenes in this book - none of them erotic or plot-relevant, and some of them involving gerbils (I swear I am not making this up) - and you have a good idea of how hard it is to slog through this novel.
I was made uncomfortable by the constant referencing of "light" and "white" skin as beautiful and "dark" skin as ugly and repulsive. This point is made several times over (in fact, a "true love" is rejected when he gets himself suntanned), and Raven-as-albino is held up as the ultimate example of beauty and wonderfulness.
Stay away from "Harem"; I couldn't sell my copy fast enough.
~ Ana Mardoll
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