Thanks to the wonderful folks at ChiZine Publications, I’m thrilled to feature a guest post by Mike Carey, Lin Carey, and Lou Carey on their brand new book, The Steel Seraglio. I’m sure urban fantasy fans will recognize Mike Carey’s name from his wonderful Felix Castor series, but The Steel Seraglio was a family affair. What follows is a biography of a real-life concubine’s daughter who rose to real political power in the 10th century in the Fatimid Caliphate. Also, up for grabs are 2 Seven Djinni chapbook/supplements to The Steel Seraglio, so be sure to check out the giveaway details at the bottom of the post.
First, about The Steel Seraglio:
The sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari of Bessa has 365 concubines – until a violent coup puts the city in the hands of the religious zealot Hakkim Mehdad. Hakkim has no use for the pleasures of the flesh: he condemns the women first to exile – and then to death! Cast into the desert, the concubines must rely on themselves and each other to escape from the new sultan’s fanatical pursuit. But their goals go beyond mere survival: with the aid of the champions who emerge from among them, they intend to topple the usurper and retake Bessa from the repressive power that now controls it. The assassin, Zuleika, whose hands are weapons. The seer, Rem, whose tears are ink. The wise Gursoon, who was the dead sultan’s canniest advisor. The camel-thief, Anwar Das, who offers his lying tongue to the concubines’ cause. Together, they must forge the women of the harem into an army, a seraglio of steel, and use it to conquer a city. But even if they succeed, their troubles will just be beginning – because their most dangerous enemy is within their own number…
Sitt al-Mulk- the daughter of a concubine who rose to govern an empire-Mike Carey, Lin Carey, and Lou Carey
When we started writing The Steel Seraglio, our premise- an army of concubines in ancient Arabia trying to take control of a city and establish a government- seemed the stuff of pure, unadulterated fantasy. Women in positions of significant political power are few and far enough between even today; over a millennium ago, we reasoned, they wouldn’t have gotten a look in.
That was before we heard about Sitt al-Mulk.
Much of Sitt al-Mulk’s story is lost and forgotten, surviving only in conflicting records and accounts of doubtful authenticity. We do know that she lived in the late 10th and early 11th centuries in the Fatimid Caliphate, a vast empire which stretched across the north coast of Africa, from the North Atlantic to what is now Saudi Arabia. She was the daughter of a Greek concubine, probably a slave captured in one of the Fatimid Caliphate’s wars. Her father, Nizār, was the third in line to the throne; his prospects were fair, but he didn’t have a hope of attaining to a position of real power. And then, all of a sudden, he did. His two older brothers were ruled out of the succession, the first was discovered to be infertile and the second became sick and died. The caliphate passed into Nizār’s hands, and suddenly, from being merely the progeny of a slave, Sitt al-Mulk became the daughter of a Caliph.
Nizār was unusually devoted to his daughter. Although she was only the daughter of one of his courtesans he gave her her own palace, and assigned a regiment from his own army to act as her private guard. Still, the patriarchy was the patriarchy, and although she had land and wealth, this did not give Sitt al-Mulk access to any political power. Nizār married, and had two sons. It was one of these, al-Hākim, who was to inherit the throne after his father’s death.
When Nizār died, he was planning a military campaign far from the capital city of the Fatimid Caliphate, Cairo. His death left a power vacuum in the capital, and there was an immediate scramble to reach Cairo, and install al-Hākim on the throne. The first person to arrive in the city after Nizār’s death was Sitt al-Mulk. She brought the private guard her father had given her and, according to some sources, she attempted to seize the caliphate for herself. This coup, if it was a coup, was thwarted by al-Hākim’s guardian. He sent Sitt al-Mulk, heavily guarded, back to her own palace, and al-Hākim took power. It was Sitt al-Mulk’s first attempt to gain the throne, but it would not be her last.
During her brother’s reign, Sitt al-Mulk more or less disappears from contemporary records. Her brother, however, was infamous for his tyranny. As time went on, al-Hākim’s rule grew increasingly despotic and cruel. He ordered the destruction of churches and synagogues, and his fiscal policies brought about widespread poverty. Worst of all, however, were his misogynistic limitations on the movements of women. He forbade shoemakers to make or sell footwear to women, literally forcing them to remain confined to the domestic sphere. As al-Hākim became more dictatorial, his relationship with his sister soured. Once, he had listened to and respected her political advice, but he now began to avoid her, and even threatened to have her killed or locked away due to suspicions over her chastity.
One evening, al-Hākim went out of Cairo on his customary late night ride, and did not return. His body was never found. It is not clear what happened to him, but rumours abounded that Sitt al-Mulk had had him murdered. Aware that her brother was destroying the Fatimid Caliphate, impoverishing its people and imprisoning its women, she had taken matters into her own hands. With al-Hākim gone, his son took the throne. But it was no secret that Sitt al-Mulk managed the young man so well that she was the real one in control, and she effectively governed the caliphate single-handedly.
During her brief rule, Sitt al-Mulk repaired the damage her brother had done to the caliphate. This is not to sat that she transformed it into a Utopia. Far from it: she ruthlessly suppressed all supporters of al-Hākim, many of whom were executed. However, the reforms she did introduce did a lot, both to reduce the oppression of women and religious minorities, and improve the economic situation. She reversed al-Hākim’s repressive order confining women to their homes, and ordered the rebuilding of both Christian and Jewish places of worship. Religious minorities, forced to convert under al-Hākim, were allowed to convert to their original faith. She had more than a touch of ruthlessness, but compared to her brother, Sitt al-Mulk was an enlightened ruler. She reigned for only two years before her death, but in that time the competence, insight and tolerance of her governance gained her a reputation which lasts to this day.
The more we read about Sitt al-Mulk, the more parallels we began to see between her story and The Steel Seraglio. There’s one character in the novel in particular, a concubine named Gursoon, who has a lot in common with her, both in terms of her political acumen and her ability to manipulate the men in her life to her own ends. Already an old woman at the start of the book, Gursoon still retains the favour of the sultan, Bokhari al-Bokhari by virtue of her sage political advice. She uses her intelligence to steer the sultan whichever way she wishes, helping keep the city of Bessa peaceful and prosperous by dexterously thwarting his stupider policies, and convincing him that her wise stratagems were his ideas in the first place. Sitt al-Mulk appears to have been possessed of similar amounts of good political sense, and she, too, knew how to use it to her advantage.
Sitt al-Mulk is also iconic figure of female strength, succeeding against the odds in a world so completely dominated by patriarchal power structures that we cannot begin to imagine it. In The Steel Seraglio we wrote a scene (which unfortunately never made it into the final novel) where Gursoon talks to the rest of the concubines about the options open to women in such a world. “As women,” she asks them, “what have we ever done but bargain with empty hands?” Like Gursoon, Sitt al-Mulk was born into almost complete powerlessness, and somehow managed to commute that powerlessness into a position of strength and control. If anyone knew how to bargain with empty hands, it was her.
Paul E. Walker, ‘The Fatimid Caliph al-ʿAziz and His Daughter Sitt al-Mulk: A Case of Delayed but Eventual Succession to Rule by a Woman’, Journal of Persianate Studies 4 (2011) 30-44
About Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey:
Mike Carey got into writing through comic books, where his horror/fantasy series Lucifer garnered numerous international awards and was nominated for five Eisners. From there he moved into novels and screenplays, while still maintaining a presence in the comics world (he is currently writing two of Marvel’s flagship titles, X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four). His movie Frost Flowers, an erotic ghost story, is currently in production with Hadaly/Bluestar Pictures. He lives in London, England, about as far as you can get from the centre of the city and still have access to the London Underground train network. His wife, Linda, writes fantasy for young readers under the pseudonym A.J. Lake. They have three children and an implausibly beautiful cat. Louise wrote The Diary of a London Schoolgirl for the website of the London Metropolitan Archive. She also co-wrote the graphic novel Confessions of a Blabbermouth with Mike.
1. You MUST fill out the form below (lots of chances for extra entries!)
2. Giveaway is for 2 Seven Djinni chapbook/supplements to The Steel Seraglio to 2 winners
3. Giveaway is open to US/Canadian addresses ONLY
4. Must include a valid email address with your entry
5. You must enter on or before 4/6/12
6. Giveaway books and generously provided by ChiZine Publications.
7. Please see my Giveaway Policy.