Review: The Sultan's Harem

The Sultan's HaremThe Sultan's Harem
by Colin Falconer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sultan's Harem / 1-4000-8312-5

"The Sultan's Harem" is a spectacular tale of hatred and revenge, as Falconer weaves the tale of a single woman - a slave of the most powerful man in the world - who tears down a powerful empire by careful manipulation of the man who loves her. This one woman, Hurrem, manages to take down an entire empire, all while only ever being seen by a handful of men - the sultan and his personal eunuchs.

Falconer makes it difficult not to admire our cold-blooded heroine, who staunchly refuses to be a good little harem girl and concubine to the man who bought her from her parents. She despises the man who tore her from her home as just another bauble to add to his vast harem, and whom she must amuse endlessly lest she be tossed callously aside for another girl in the harem. If she must play the game of harem politics to survive, she will play it - but survival is too meager a goal for her. Carefully and coldly, she devises a plan to bear a child, remove the Sultan's favorite, entice him to fall in love with her, and then secure her freedom and unprecedented marriage to the emperor. Even as a wife, she is still a slave in everything but name, and she ruthlessly turns her mental hold on her husband to send him spiraling into madness while the kingdom collapses slowly around him.

Falconer carefully treads the personal and the political here, as with all his novels, and we see sympathetic glimpses into both the main players (sultan and sultana) and into the lives of the hapless girls living silently in his lavish harem. Each girl has her own history, her own loss, and her own sadness, and - faced with the realities of the harem, and of the monogamous sultan - finds her own pastimes and petty jealousies. Are these women better off than the ones on the outside? They are safe and pampered baubles in a collection of sex slaves that are almost never "used" by their relatively monogamous master. But the silence and loneliness gnaws at their souls and the passage of time weighs heavily on all involved. Is our dark heroine really so unusual in her hate and cruelty, or are her sisters in the harem just as enraged but powerless to act out?

Gripping and suspenseful, "The Sultan's Harem" is a compelling read - I could not put it down. I agree with another reviewer in that the story would make a wonderful movie, should anyone ever acquire the rights. Like other Falconer novels, the writing is frank and does not shy away from the facts of life, but the writing is never lurid or vulgar.

~ Ana Mardoll

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