I discovered ChiZine Press a couple of years ago, entirely by accident, and have never once been disappointed by their creepy speculative fiction offerings. So when they asked me to host a guest post for the tour celebrating the release of The Steel Seraglio by the family team of Mike, Louise & Linda Carey, how could I refuse? I knew the book was going to be awesome. (I’m about seventy-five pages into it right now, and I was right, it is awesome.) And the narrator is a librarian? Well, that’s only fair and right, after all.
Don’t Mess with the Librarian!
Mike, Linda & Louise Carey
A couple of years ago, the three of us had an idea for a book and decided to write it together. We were an odd sort of partnership in some ways: a 50-something North London couple (one working writer and one with a day-job) and their teenaged daughter, who at that time was still in high school. The book itself, The Steel Seraglio, might at first seem a strange idea for a family venture: it’s about a group of women wandering the desert in a remote, never-really-existed land out of the Arabian Nights. At first they’re just trying to survive; later they go to war and build a city. The women are three hundred and sixty-five ex-concubines, from the harem of a deposed sultan – and one librarian.
This setting, and these characters, weren’t chosen at random. All three of us have long loved the stories of the 1001 Nights: the tales told by Queen Sheherezade to save herself from her husband’s murderous jealousy by keeping him, night after night, hanging on a punch line. King Shahryar, convinced that all women are unfaithful, has been taking a new bride each night and executing her the following morning – so Sheherezade’s resourcefulness could save not only herself, but all the women of the kingdom. Her dazzling imaginative power only highlights the powerlessness of her situation: if Shahryar once gets bored, he’ll have her killed. Like the concubines of our story, Sheherezade starts off entirely subjected to the whims of men. The only weapons she has are her words, but she uses them to spellbinding effect. She tells stories of love, treachery, adventure, bawdy farce and high tragedy. In modern terms, she cuts right across genres: there’s a whodunit in there, several ghost stories and an assortment of monsters. With these she wins over the king, who spares her life, and finally grants her the love and honour she deserves.
In our book we’ve stolen a couple of things from the 1001 Nights. There’s the idea of a group of women who begin as chattels, save their own lives and raise themselves to power and honour. And there’s the crucial importance of stories, which crop up throughout the book. Like Sheherezade, our characters are largely powerless, and stories are their tools and weapons, as well as occasional sources of wisdom.
This is where the librarian comes in.
Libraries and archives, and those who work in them, have an honourable tradition in literature; perhaps especially in fantasy. From Terry Pratchett’s perfectly-adapted simian to Rupert Giles in Buffy, the Librarian has stood as a figure of power and knowledge, passing on wisdom and protecting the sacred books from fire, flood and demons. Our librarian, Rem, is a very young woman at the start of the novel, whose love of words has led her to disguise herself as a boy in order to work in the library of the city of Bessa. When a fanatic takes over the city, murdering the sultan and threatening to burn the library, Rem carries out her own quiet revolution and tries to save as many of the books as she can. As a result, she’s arrested, condemned and cast out into the desert to die – only to be saved by the wandering concubines.
The resulting partnership takes the women’s lives in an unexpected direction – and Rem’s next revolution is a whole lot noisier. One of the scenes we most enjoyed writing is the one in which Rem – rather than our indomitable warrior-woman, Zuleika – leads an assault on Hakkim’s palace and finally gets to confront him face-to-face.
But Rem is at her most heroic when she’s alone, risking torture and death for her beloved books. One of the things she does when the game is up and the guards are coming for her is to write on her own body the words of the banned texts that are going to get her killed – declaring her solidarity with the books by turning herself into one.
Greater love hath no librarian, and whether as readers or as writers, we’re right there with her. The burners of books have their own level in Hell.