N loves Sci-Fi (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) and fantasy. I don’t. The last sci-fi fantasy read N lent me I rather rudely rejected after about 50pages because I literally couldn’t tell what was more annoying, the characters or the dialogue between them, which was so contrived and far-fetched not only did I not care about the people saying it, I couldn’t actually tell them apart…
So when I decided to take part in the Once Upon A Time spring reading challenge of reading a fantasy, fable, myth and fairy tale before June, I decided to take the plunge of re-visiting N’s vast collection of tripe she has somehow managed to foist on me (joking, joking, especially after the lovely post below on my books, how could I call any of N’s anything but sublime? They are wondrous, challenging books, all of them, right up to the 17th Anita Blake vampire sextress multi-special shagathon I was not bored once! Honest!)in order to expand my horizons in the fantasy genre.
To be fair, the Percheron series of books (Odalisque, Emissary and Goddess) by Fiona McIntosh have been sat on my TBR shelf for a good six to eight months, I just ‘haven’t got round to them’. The covers, for a start, put me off; anything with embossed statues of ancient gods rearing up towards a big purple sun with a font so serif it is almost making a political statement tend to scream ‘this is shite’ at me from a distance. But I am not judging books by their covers this year (see earlier postings) so I couldn’t use that as an excuse.
The blurb didn’t fill me enthusiasm much either, to be honest. Mostly because it had the words ‘golden beauty’ in reference to the title, ‘odalisque’. Ah yes, I thought, Fiona McIntosh may be a woman, but here heroines still have to be physically pleasing.
The Odalisque is Ana, but this is not her story entirely. The book opens with the gripping descriptions of the city of Percheron- loosely based on the Constantinople of the ancient Ottoman empire (that was only 500 years ago…but never mind). The introduction introduces one of the highlights of the book, Spur Lazar (this being a fantasy set in the “East” all names must be two to four syllables long and contain at least one Z). Laser, sorry Lazar (Laser) is muscular, dirty, gritty, fighting desert animal man who would be almost sexy if he wasn’t so f-ing wet. This defect does not become apparent, however until after he meets the Odalisque Ana; a heroine so boring, effecting and predictable I almost had to go back in time, drag the racehorse off Emily Davison and scream ‘it’s not worth it, Emily, we might as well stay disenfranchised, eighty years later we’re still going to be wasting our precious tax-free time reading about and looking up to people like this (illustrate minds-eye view of Ana, who is possibly wearing some sort of see through sheath that not only illustrates her impeccable beauty, but her understanding nature and mighty wisdom) at which point Emily sits up, cries ‘by Gods, you were right’ and starts an incredibly successful career lecturing on the problems that come with a hymen at the Women’s Institute.
The books, to their credit (and believe me I’m not giving them much) are set in an amazing world, which would have been about 100 times more amazing if McIntosh had just done the right thing and actually written about Renaissance Constantinople. She describes the city beautifully, the markets and the temples are reminiscent of old town Marrakesh and the made-up customs of the people are so intricate they can only have been based on those of a real, non fantastical world. The most favourable part of the whole book has to be the description of the cities power house, and the harem. I know a fair bit about harems and her depictions of how the women and children of an old ruler were treated after the Ascension of a new one are completely true (apart from the women were also killed by being throne off cliffs, in bags) and her writing of them is both simply horrific and moving. If McIntosh had stuck to writing about the life within a Ottoman palace from the perspectives of say the eunuchs, the concubines and the normal people it would have been a lovely, moving, captivating, stimulating read.
But it wasn’t. It was just fantasy. I read all three books because I wanted to finish the series, because I did enjoy parts, but by the end of the third I was actually laughing aloud at the clumsy phrasing, the cliche-d love story and the frankly ridiculous subplot involving a ancient battle between two opposing deities, representing the male and female consciousness, of which the male god Zareb (Zzzzzzz) is currently worshipped. The history of religion being gender specific is long established, and I get that McIntosh was trying to say something about a possible return to matriarchy, I just couldn’t tell what. Every now and then some ancient Roman or Greek myth would come hurtling out of the pages, which clashed so oddly with the early-modern Persia setting I had to wince. The subplot and the main plots were so interchangeably dull I couldn’t be bothered to follow them and the overall conclusion seemed tacked on at the end, as if McIntosh had suddenly realised that she had about fifteen loose threads to tie up, but hadn’t a clue how to do it.
I wouldn’t recommended these books, that saddens me because I really WANTED to recommend these books. I wanted to come out of this experience loving fantasy, and wishing that every book could be make believe. N confessed she didn’t see me reading them, I guess every one’s tastes differ. The first of the trilogy definitely has it’s good bits, but it is so unendingly dross (the second book took literally 315 pages to become anything but tube-home interesting, and then suddenly jumped from situation thriller to Lawrence of Arabia style epic so quickly I had to rewind myself) that not a lot can be said for the series as a whole. The characters are shabby, and the overuse of dramatic irony (the demon’s in the Vizier, get over it) so overplayed, I did not feel like I had wasted my time on these books; rather McIntosh had in fact wasted hers.
Better books I have been reading this month include ‘The Owl Killers’ by Karen Maitland (a vast vast improvement on ‘A Company of Liers’ we read for book club last month) and ‘Spirit Walker’ by Michelle Paver, book 2 of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness- excellent reading for children that can be enjoyed very much so by adults, going to read the rest of the series hopefully this month, high contender for Series of the Year this one!
I am also about 50 pages away from finishing The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova (again, read her first with book club- see how useful and brilliant sharing your reading can be?) which I’m not going to say anything about because N hasn’t read it yet (except that it is wicked).