The Sharazad Project: Week 47

Trigger warning: references to incest

Last week was a welcome break from Dau’ al-Makan’s holy war, with the vizier Dandan telling a story about a variety of weird people falling in lust and very occasionally, love. That’s now over and we are back to the fighting. Four years of it. After so long a siege even Dau’ al-Makan is getting tired. Dandan advises that they go home, revitalise and come back for another go later on. What with his son Kana-ma-Kana and niece Qudiya-fa-Kana both growing up without him, Dau’ al-Makan agrees. To everyone’s delight – INCLUDING MINE – they finally abandon Constantinople and head for Baghdad. I thought I was going to have to recap another slaughter. Someone gave up! They actually gave up! It’s a miracle!

Kana-ma-Kana is now seven years old and has never met his father. Upon his return to Baghdad, Dau’ al-Makan sees him first then calls on his old friend the furnace man, to whom nothing has ever been explained. He doesn’t even recognise Dau’ al-Makan at first, and when he does, can’t imagine how he became king. Pressed to ask for some favour, the furnace man asks at first to be put in charge of the other furnace men in Jerusalem. This inspires much amusement. Upon discovering he can ask for something rather fancier, he goes for the vacated post of sultan of Damascus. He’s even given a name for the first time – al-Ziblkan al-Malk al-Muhjahid. The citizens welcome him, the officials greet him and he prepares to send Qudiya-fa-Kana to her family in Baghdad.

She is eight and has never met her uncle. For the love of her dead father, Dau’ al-Makan showers her in gifts. She lives with Kana-ma-Kana, the two of them growing up well-educated and brave. Apparently. Qudiya-fa-Kana is the careful one, while Kana-ma-Kana is the reckless one. They both like riding out into the country to practice swordplay. That is not a euphemism.

While the kids grow up, Dau al’Makan is planning his second holy war. Because the last one worked out so well. He plans to appoint his young son as king, an idea Dandan gently points out is really bad. For one thing, Kana-ma-Kana is a child. For another, handing over power to someone else, even his own son, pretty guarantees that Dau’ al-Makan won’t ever get it back. Dau al’Makan explains that he means to place Kana-ma-Kana under the care of his brother-in-law, the royal chamberlain. Recognising that his king is resolute, Dandan gives up.

The handover is duly made and the young cousins are betrothed at the same time. Nuzhat al-Zaman, Dau’ al-Makan’s twin, promises to take care of both. It turns out that Dau’ al-Makan is actually sick, a disease that has plagued him for four years. Commissioning his son with destroying Dhat al-Dawahi if he possibly can, Dau’ al-Makan takes to his bed while the chamberlain runs the country.

Kana-ma-Kana and Qudiya-fa-Kana are definitely preparing for war. They spend all day together practicing their skills with a lance and bow. Confident of his son’s future greatness, Dau’ al-Makan passes away.

People get over it pretty fast. He wasn’t in Baghdad much anyway. The royal chamberlain rules; Kana-ma-Kana is pushed aside, unable to take the throne, and falls into poverty. His mother goes to plead her case with Nuzhat al-Zaman, who is shocked to learn of their financial distress – she assures them of a welcome in her home, a sentiment seconded by her husband.

In night 138, we see Kana-ma-Kana and Qudiya-fa-Kana at the age of fifteen: beautiful, accomplished and very awkward. Well, Kana-ma-Kana is anyway. Trying to make his express his crush, he succeeds in offending Qudiya-fa-Kana, who goes to complain about his bad poetry to her mother. Despite the rejection, word spreads of Kana-ma-Kana’s love. In night 139 the chamberlain – now known as al-Malik Sasan – hears of it and decides it’s no longer appropriate for Kana-ma-Kana to visit his cousin. Nuzhat al-Zaman reluctantly passes the message on.

Kana-ma-Kana is upset. His mother is not sympathetic, telling him he should have just kept his mouth shut. All things they have now depend on the new king’s kindness; there appears to be no chance that Kana-ma-Kana will ever take the throne. After some dramatic sad poetry, he insists he and his mother go and be beggars rather than live on his aunt’s charity. Most beggars can’t acquire their meals from the palace, but it still really sucks for his mother. She is stopped on one trip to the palace when Qudiya-fa-Kana asks after Kana-ma-Kana. The princess is shocked to hear of her cousin’s misery; she loves him too, just knows he doesn’t think things through and brings down trouble on himself as a result. She gives Kana-ma-Kana’s mother a reassuring couplet to take back to her son. It sort of helps but also sort of doesn’t because they still can’t meet.

By the time Kana-ma-Kana turns seventeen, he is sick to death of waiting around. He leaves Baghdad barefoot with only a stale loaf of bread for provisions. He doesn’t even offer his mother the courtesy of telling her he’s leaving – she waits for him, and when he doesn’t return, grieves loudly. “My darling son, you have brought down sorrows on me, although I had enough of these before you left home.” Tell it, lady. Her distress draws attention and people start muttering about how Dau’ al-Makan was actually a pretty good king, something like this wouldn’t have happened in his day.

In night 140, King Sasan hears the story from his leading emirs, who remind him Kana-ma-Kana is of royal blood. Sasan is so angry he has them all hanged. Amazingly, this does not have a positive effect on his reputation. Getting over his homicidal snit, Sasan remembers that Dau’ al-Makan was a good friend to him and decides to look for the missing prince. He sends someone called Tarkash to look with a hundred riders but after ten days searching there is no sign of the boy.

So what has befallen Kana-ma-Kana? He had no idea where he was going so just wandered the desert feeling sorry for himself, living off what he could forage, until he came at length to a beautiful green plain. Having fallen asleep on the grass, Kana-ma-Kana wakes in the middle of the night to a man’s voice reciting love poetry remarkably akin to his own. He gets up to look for the reciter, sure they’ll be good friends. When he can’t find the man, he calls out an invitation and is mistaken for a jinni. After much crying and reciting of poetry the sun rises and the two men see each other.

The reciter is a ragged young Bedouin man called Sabbah ibn Rammah ibn Hammam who thinks Kana-ma-Kana won’t make a good friend so much as a good servant. When Kana-ma-Kana gently prods him for an explanation for his vocal woe, he says that he’s in love with his cousin Najma but as a penniless member of his clan, Najma’s father sees him as an unworthy suitor. In order to win her Sabbah must return with a massive dowry of horses, camels and slaves. His only hope of amassing so much wealth is to stalk the merchants of Baghdad and rob them.

Obviously Kana-ma-Kana disapproves of this plan. He tells Sabbah of his own hopeless love for a king’s daughter and Sabbah snorts at the very idea, since all he sees is a young man even more ragged than himself. Kana-ma-Kana indignantly defends his lineage. Sabbah rejoices, because now he has a fantastic hostage. The prince’s protests that his family won’t pay a coin for him and really friendship is better than abduction fall on deaf ears. Seeing that Sabbah is determined to take him for ransom, Kana-ma-Kana neatly goads him into throwing aside his weapons for a wrestling contest to prove his worth. Sabbah laughs. He’ll regret that. There are a lot of things Kana-ma-Kana can’t do, but fighting is in his bones.

Before long, he has an unshakeable grip on his opponent and is preparing to throw him into the river. Sabbah appeals to him for clemency, which he gets, then retrieves his weapons and contemplates a second attack, this time fully armed. From the way this scene is written, I think some anti-Bedouin sentiment has gone into constructing his character. Certainly he’s being painted as fairly treacherous. Kana-ma-Kana sees his resentment and offers another bout – Sabbah armed with the sword, Kana-ma-Kana with just the shield. Deflecting each blow until his opponent tires, the prince seizes his first opportunity to overpower and bind Sabbah and drag him back to the river.

Once again Sabbah convinces him to change his mind. They agree to become friends instead. After lunch and a chat, Sabbah heads for Baghdad and Kana-ma-Kana stays on the green plain. He is praying for a chance at a better life when up rides a badly wounded horseman who promises to end his poverty if he will only give him some water. Kana-ma-Kana obliges and asks after the source of the injury. The rider admits he is a horse thief of some renown. His name is Ghassan and the beautiful horse he rides is Qatul, a treasure of Emperor Afridun. While he was  awaiting his chance to steal the horse, Ghassan saw Dhat al-Dawahi ride out with it and ten slaves to head for Baghdad, where she meant to make peace with King Sasan. The slaves were very competent and Ghassan was beginning to give up on his theft when a gang of much nastier robbers led by the warrior Kahardash swept up.

In night 141 the warrior tied up everyone and took the horse, but Dhat al-Dawahi soon talked Kahardash into freeing her and all the slaves, and Ghassan took his opportunity to steal the incomparable horse. It’s an amazing mount in battle, as was proven when the robbers pursued, but Ghassan had precious little time to enjoy his success – badly wounded in the escape, he’s now on the point of death. Kana-ma-Kana introduces himself and Ghassan offers the horse in exchange for help returning him to his own land. Kana-ma-Kana assures him he needs no reward for such a service, but it’s too late anyway. Ghassan dies. The prince buries him on the plain and goes to admire the horse. “No one is lucky enough to have a stallion like this,” he observes and adds, perhaps a little smugly, “not even King Sasan.”

King Sasan is not having much luck at all right now, as it happens. Dandan has rustled up a rebellion with half the royal army on his side, swearing they’ll have no king but Kana-ma-Kana. The vizier goes one further, swearing he won’t sheath his sword until Dau’ al-Makan’s boy is on the throne. For an elderly man, he’s got a lot of tenacity. Talking up reinforcements as he goes, he marches on Baghdad.

I would like to state for the record that I never did trust the chamberlain – not in the general  ‘these people are jerks’ way I’ve felt about most of the characters in this story but a specific ‘he’s hella ambitious and probably a usurper’ kind of a way, so. Ha. I’m getting what satisfaction I can at this point.

As it turns out, this will be the penultimate post of the Sharazad Project! Join me next Tuesday as I conclude the saga of two wildly dysfunctional royal families.

Review – The Shadow Cabinet

The Shadow Cabinet (Shades of London No.3) – Maureen Johnson

Hot Key Books, 2015

The rules have changed. Since she arrived in London, Rory Devereaux has been hunted by homicidal ghosts, infused with a power she doesn’t understand, joined a secret paranormal police force and fallen for a boy who just died to save her. But he’s not exactly gone. If she is ever going to see him again, she has to stay in London – but with the leader of a dangerous cult determined to find her and her own disappearance causing waves among those who love her most, no decision looks like the right one. Wherever she goes from here, she’s off the map.

These are fairly dark books, despite the strong thread of humour running through – I mean, this one opens with a mass murder – and Rory as a character feels increasingly out of her depth. Her bonds with the other characters are getting strained, which is part of what made the introduction of Freddie abrupt and a bit unconvincing to me. I’d have preferred to see more of Boo and Callum, who were not as visible in this installment. The new villains, however, are very promising. The Shades of London series will continue with a fourth novel, but the title and date of publication have not yet been released.

The Sharazad Project: Week 46

Trigger warning: contains torture and mutilation

Last week was a segue within a segue within a segue – the vizier Dandan was telling a story about a prince, who was hearing a story about a merchant – the merchant being ‘Aziz, chronically incapable of keeping it in his pants, now married to his kidnapper and father of her son but visiting his ex-girlfriend Gazelle Girl on his one day out of the house. He hasn’t even gone to check in with his mother. After a year’s unexplained absence.

Gazelle Girl gives every appearance of having missed him, her pallour and mournful look sparking a tiny bit of shame in ‘Aziz, which is frankly a miracle. Her high expectations for lovers also apply to herself, denying her sleep and peace of mind (or at least she denies having had them). ‘Aziz tells her what happened to him and Gazelle Girl seethes. Thwarted by Abduction Girl, she calls on ‘Aziza’s memory again. “She died because of the treatment to which you subjected her, and it is she who protected you from me,” she reminds ‘Aziz. “I thought you loved me and I let you go on your way, although I could have seen to it that you didn’t leave unscathed, or I could have kept you as a prisoner or killed you.” Wow. That’s very…honest? And terrifying. In a bad way. She bursts into angry tears and ‘Aziz realises maybe this visit was a bad idea.

Gazelle Girl summons her slave girls, who quickly pin ‘Aziz to the ground. Then she takes out a knife and starts sharpening it, telling ‘Aziz that a quick death is the least he deserves for the way he has treated her, and ‘Aziza before her. In night 126, she commences the punishment with a severe beating – inflicted by her slave girls while she watches – but just as she leans forward to conclude matters with her knife, ‘Aziz remembers his cousin’s final speech and cries out, “My lady, don’t you know that loyalty is good and treachery is evil?”

Murder is apparently A-OK with Gazelle Girl but crossing the words of Saint ‘Aziza simply cannot be done. She agrees to let her captive live. “But I cannot let you go like this,” she says. “I must leave a mark on you in order to hurt that shameless whore who has kept you away from me.” Ordering her lackeys to tie ‘Aziz up, she cuts off his penis, cauterises the wound and literally kicks him out. The injured man staggers home to his wife, who discovers his condition and likewise has no further use for him. It’s a whirlwind of awful.

Abandoned, ‘Aziz goes home. His mother is overjoyed to see him alive but has to explain that in his time away, his father died. Sobbing desperately, ‘Aziz passes out. As his mother tends him, he tells her everything that has befallen him since that meeting under Gazelle Girl’s window and grieves the loss of his kind-hearted cousin. Grateful just to have her son back, if not quite in one piece then at least with his throat intact, and seeing he genuinely misses his cousin, ‘Aziz’s mother fetches out what ‘Aziza left for him on her deathbed. It is Gazelle Girl’s kerchief with new embroidery from ‘Aziza, spelling out verses on the tragedy of unrequited love. Within the folds there is also a note, absolving him of blame in her death but asking that he keep the kerchief as a reminder of ‘Aziza’s help and to under no circumstances to hook up with its maker. The woman who embroidered the cloth is not Gazelle Girl’s sister at all, as it turns out, she’s the daughter of a king and sends out a sample of her work every year to the world at large.

According to the note, ‘Aziz should avoid her if he can. In fact, ‘Aziza felt he should avoid women altogether. He sinks into a state of tearful contemplation for a year, at the end of which time his mother advises he go travelling with other merchants and maybe start recovering from the bizarre and traumatising events that led him back home.

On the way, he passed the Islands of Camphor and the Crystal Castle. Why is this location significant? ‘Aziza told him that’s where the embroidering princess lives, that’s why. The ruler of the seven islands is Shahriman and his daughter is Dunya. Just the proximity was enough to reduce ‘Aziz to floods of tears.

Thus concludes his tale. What his listener, Prince Taj al-Muluk, got out of all that was: wow, Princess Dunya sounds hot.

In night 129, he convinces himself he’s in love with her. “By God, nothing like this adventure of yours has happened to anyone before,” he tells ‘Aziz, “but you have to live out your own fate…Tell me how you came to see the girl who embroidered this gazelle.” ‘Aziz bribed a gardener into letting him spy on the princess during her regular walk in the orchard, allowing him to see she was indeed exceptionally beautiful. Knowing he didn’t have a chance with her was what really induced ‘Aziz’s misery. The man needs so much counseling.

Anyway, Taj al-Muluk has no such qualms about his worth. He takes the merchant home and tells his father he is totally in love with Princess Dunya. His father points out the distance between kingdoms is a fairly significant obstacle and suggests he looks elsewhere. Like picking one of his mother’s slave girls, because they can’t actually say no. UGH. “I must have her,” Taj al-Muluk insists stubbornly, “or else I shall wander off into the wastes and wildernesses and kill myself because of her.”

Familiar with his son’s drama, the king sees there’s no talking him out of this sudden infatuation and agrees to send an envoy. If that fails, he assures his darling little prince that they’ll just conquer the islands and get the girl anyway. The vizier is sent off with ‘Aziz as a guide and appropriate gifts for Dunya’s father. Shahriman is rather less easy to impress than Taj al-Muluk’s grandfather. He makes the envoy wait three days before meeting with them. Princess Dunya, you see, has said before that she doesn’t want to marry. Summoning his daughter, he gets a pretty obvious confirmation when she attacks the messenger with a stick. “If my father forces me to marry,” she declares, “then I shall kill my husband.” Shahriman kind of shrugs and tells the envoy it’s a hopeless cause.

In night 131, Taj al-Muluk’s dad duly prepares for war. The vizier tells him to cool down for a minute, the refusal came from the princess herself and if forced to marry she’ll probably kill herself, which will do no good to anyone at all. Taj al-Muluk is not dissuaded, however. He decides to disguise himself and win her over somehow in person. His father, who can refuse him nothing, hands over a generous travel allowance. His mother gives him some more money and her blessing. Off he goes with the long-suffering vizier and his new bestie ‘Aziz, who recites poetry to distract him from romantic woe. Over two months of travel later, they enter Shahriman’s city disguised as traders. Renting a large house, Taj al-Muluk then waits for his friends to come up with a plan. They go with the vizier’s idea: sell silk, look pretty, hope someone important will eventually notice them.

The other merchants all flutter and stare when the three men arrive in the marketplace. Acting as a guardian towards the prince and his friend, the vizier explains to the superintendent of the market that he plans to stay a full year and allow his young charges to explore. We then get our second canonical gay character with the superintendent described as ‘being someone who was passionately fond of murderous glances and who preferred the love of boys to that of girls’. I’ve no idea what that first bit means, possibly it is a kink? He grants the vizier an excellent booth for displaying the silks and the disguised courtiers move in.

As night 132 begins, the younger men go to the baths and come out to find the superintendent waiting for them. He stares fixedly at their backsides. They insist he bathe too and proceed to wash him. Even the vizier’s presence can’t tamp his enjoyment; he enthuses on the general awesomeness of baths.

That’s it. That’s his part in the story over and done. At least he had fun!

The good looks of both young men soon draw the attention of the townsfolk too. Leaving the boys to sell silk and charm the populace, the vizier goes home to plan Taj al-Muluk’s romantic campaign. Someone has to, since the prince is incapable of thinking of anything other than meeting Dunya.

In night 133 an elderly lady stops at the shop with her two slave girls to ogle him and upon being offered a seat, enquires after his most beautiful goods. Ignoring any possible double entendre, Taj al-Muluk tells her his finest wares will suit only royalty and is ecstatic to hear the old lady intends the silk to go to Dunya. She selects something and openly touches herself throughout the bargaining, returning to the princess in a daze. Upon hearing Dunya’s admiration for the cloth, she raves about Taj al-Muluk’s beauty and thinks he’d make a hot match for her mistress. Dunya is amused by her enthusiasm, but really does like the silk. She sends the old lady back to the booth to see if there’s anything Taj al-Muluk wants.

Well, we know the answer to that. He sends a love letter and pays the old woman for her trouble. “What are things coming to when this trader sends me messages and writes to me?” Dunya cries, and thinks about executing him. The old lady points out she’s about as inaccessible as it is possible to be so what does it matter if this merchant fancies her? Sufficient threats should make him back off. “Deluded man, do you seek union with the moon?” Dunya writes back. “Has anyone got what he wanted from the moon?”

Taj al-Muluk sobs upon receiving her very sharp response. The old lady takes pity on him and agrees to help him win over the princess, delivering a sorrowful second note. Dunya is unmoved. By now passionately shipping the two young royals, the old lady hides a third note in her hair so that it will fall out ‘by accident’, only Dunya is not fooled at all. The old lady was her nurse; she is fond of her, but angry at the trick. She knows her reputation could be damaged by even this one-sided love and grows increasingly furious with Taj al-Muluk for ignoring her orders. “How many verses must I write to hold you back?” she demands, in her note of reply.

Realising AT LAST that the princess is really really not interested, Taj al-Muluk asks the vizier for advice and is told to call down a curse on Dunya. The next note is written by ‘Aziz and much more accusatory. When it is delivered, Dunya has her former nurse beaten and thrown out of the palace. Later the old lady tells Taj al-Muluk what happened, and also why Dunya hates men so much. The princess dreamed once of a hunter catching birds, among them a male and female pigeon; when the male pigeon was caught the female came back to free him but when the pair were netted again shortly afterwards the female was caught and the male abandoned her. Dunya decided this was a sign that all male creatures are faithless. However, despite being sacked, the old lady is more on board the romance train than ever and agrees to give Taj al-Muluk his first look at this girl he’s sure he loves.

Now that he has an opportunity to see Dunya, the prince loses all interest in being a fake merchant and gives over his goods to ‘Aziz. The two young men and the vizier go to the royal gardens, where they have a picnic while scoping out the land. Noticing a dilapidated pavilion, the vizier bribes the gardener into…letting him renovate it. Including murals from the dream about the pigeons, and an image not from the dream, of the male pigeon in a hawk’s claws. Afterwards they go home where ‘Aziz and the vizier calm down their prince with poetry.

As for Dunya, she’s accustomed to taking her walk with the old lady and so makes peace with her. Alerting Taj al-Muluk, the old lady goes to her. The prince puts on his best robes and hides in the garden, while the old lady convinces Dunya to send away her guards. The princess walks around the garden, unaware that she is being watched. Coming to the pavilion, she is struck by the pictures – it seems the male pigeon was killed before he could save his mate, so maybe men are not evil after all? At this moment of doubt Taj al-Muluk follows the old lady’s signal and walks under the pavilion windows, being ridiculously attractive. Dunya’s attention is caught. Pleased, the old lady gestures for Taj al-Muluk to go home and allow the idea to settle in Dunya’s mind.

It does more than settle. Dunya is determined to meet him and pays the old lady to arrange it. Which she does, dressing him up as a slave girl so as to avoid detection. The chief eunuch is puzzled by the arrival and wants to search ‘her’, as per his orders, but in night 135 the old lady threatens him with the princess’s displeasure and sends Taj al-Muluk off on his own. Upon entering Dunya’s chamber, the two halves of this very strange couple fly into each other’s arms. With the old lady as their lookout, they spend an enthusiastic night together.

For a month they manage to carry on a secret affair. Not once does Taj al-Muluk send a message to his friends, leading them to believe him in grave peril. ‘Aziz and the vizier go back to the prince’s kingdom and tell his father that Taj al-Muluk has vanished into the palace. Immediately, Sulaiman Shah orders his army to set off for the islands.

Six months into their affair, Taj al-Muluk finally tells Dunya who he really is. He wants to ask her father for her hand again; she agrees at once. Unfortunately this is the day they sleep late and the king’s chief eunuch, sent to Dunya with a present, catches them in bed together. He immediately tells the king, who is furious. When his daughter tries to defend her lover, he has her taken back to her room, but Taj al-Muluk announces his identity proudly and assures Shahriman that he will really regret it if he kills him. The king hesitates. His vizier, however, advocates a quick death and Shahriman orders his reluctant executioner to take off the young man’s head.

After one of Sharazad’s best cliffhangers, the story continues in night 136. Just as the executioner is about to swing, screams are heard from outside as the cavalry arrives! Literally, Taj al-Muluk’s father has thousands of horsemen thundering to the rescue. Messengers from Sulaiman Shah demand news of the prince. If he’s safe, so is Shahriman’s kingdom; if he’s been harmed, ‘be assured of the ruin and the devastation of your country, for [the king] will make it a wilderness in which the ravens croak’. Lucky the executioner was so slow! Sulaiman Shah’s vizier recognises Taj al-Muluk, who leaps up to embrace him. The prince assures a very alarmed Shahriman that he bears him no ill will while Dunya is safe and well.

Which isn’t much of a guarantee because she’s acquired a sword from somewhere and is preparing to run herself through. Her father intercepts her, assures her that her boyfriend is very much alive and hey, they can get married any time! Dunya tells him he deserves to die – Shahriman, that is, not the boyfriend – but as it is, she wants to see Taj al-Muluk more than she wants to fight. The lovers fling themselves at each other. Her father leaves them to it. He has a fellow king to appease, an enemy army to calm and a wedding to arrange.

Fortunately, now that he’s not about to kill his son, he gets on very well with Sulaiman Shah. Taj al-Muluk soon reunites with his anxious father, and sends ‘Aziz to his own home with all the riches he could desire. It’s about time. His mother has built a tomb, assuming him dead. She faints at the sight of him but quickly recovers and is delighted to discover their financial future is now one hundred percent assured.

Back in the isles, Dunya marries Taj al-Muluk and packs up her stuff for the trip to his kingdom. Probably for the best, given the breakdown in relations with her father. They arrive in Sulaiman Shah’s city to a joyful reception and a second wedding. Therein they live happily ever after.

Having concluded his tale, the vizier Dandan is praised by his listening king Dau’ al-Makan. And they get back to besieging Constantinople.

Review – The Kingmaker’s Daughter

The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins War No.4) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2013

Originally published in 2012

It is 1465 and while the crown may rest upon the handsome head of young King Edward, everyone knows the real power behind the throne is the Earl of Warwick. When Edward defies his plans by marrying for love, Warwick must look elsewhere for the fulfillment of his ambition. He plans marriages for his two daughters, Isabel and Anne, promising each girl greatness. Only one, however, can be Queen of England. And the way to the throne demands its toll in blood.

I found my copy in the gorgeous bookshop Archives while poking around some of Brisbane’s oldest buildings, and enthused passionately about women of the Cousins War to the very patient shop assistant. Gregory has created something extraordinary with this series – the same events have been covered three times over by now but with each protagonist’s different perception they become brand new, the heroine of one story becoming the villain of another. Anne Neville is introduced as a little girl and Gregory nails the complexity of emotion, particularly between the competitive sisters as they grow up. The Cousins War continues with The White Princess.

The Sharazad Project: Week 45

Trigger warnings: incest, abduction, sex with dubious consent

Last week, Sharkan died. That was unexpected! Dhat al-Dawahi killed him in revenge for her son’s death and fled the Muslim camp, her disguise as an ascetic now useless. This week the Revenge Hat has been passed on to Dau’ al-Makan so he plans to demolish Constantinople, even if the siege takes the rest of his life. Riders from each division of the army are given letters and a share of treasure to be taken home for the families left behind. Who I’d much rather be spending time with, frankly, has Sharkan’s baby girl taken her first steps yet? Has Dau’ al-Makan’s wife given birth? How is Nuzhat al-Zaman readjusting to life in her old home, has she had any contact with her daughter in Damascus? I don’t KNOW, because we are stuck in a war saga now. Dau’ al-Makan does write to his sister, telling her of his intentions and asking her to look after the home front. He’s only really interested in his child if it’s a boy.

However, while his army camps right outside the walls of Constantinople, no one comes out to face him.

After killing Sharkan, Dhat al-Dawahi was pulled to safety within the city and went before Afridun, where she brought the whole court to tears in sympathy with her grief. He kisses her hands at the news of her revenge. He’s determined to hold the siege; she’s determined to destroy Sharkan’s army utterly. She starts by writing a long, gloating letter confessing to all her tricks, starting with ‘Umar’s death and concluding with Sharkan’s. “If you want to be safe now, leave at once,” she writes, “but if you want to bring destruction on yourselves, stay here.” She mourns for her son for three days, then on the fourth day has her letter shot by arrow at the Muslim camp. Dau’ al-Makan weeps and rages when he finds out who the ‘ascetic’ really was, coming up with all kinds of gender specific and horribly explicit threats against her. Dandan offers an ‘I told you so’. When Dau’ al-Makan also stops eating, the vizier bucks him up with some poetry about fate and Dau’ al-Makan admits to homesickness. Everybody cries a bit.

Soon word returns from Baghdad: in his absence Dau’ al-Makan’s wife has given birth to a son and Nuzhat al-Zaman has named him Kana-ma-Kana, which means ‘What was, was’. The furnace man (remember him?) is happy but confused. Feeling emotional, Dau’ al-Makan has tents arranged around his brother’s grave so that a selection of soldiers can pray for him while the young king and a few close friends recite tearful poetry. Afterwards, Dau’ al-Makan holds a war council. I have no idea what’s decided because no one cares. Instead Dau’ al-Makan asks for Dandan to tell him stories as a distraction from the whole war thing that’s going on (there is another way! GO HOME AND LET THIS STOP). All his commanders gather together over a meal to hear about ‘the lover and his beloved’.


In night 107, we go behind the mountains of Isfahan to the Green City, which is ruled by the king Sulaiman Shah. He’s very virtuous and famous, apparently, but is for some reason unmarried and without an heir. Getting tired of the bachelor life, he asks his vizier for advice. “Buy a slave girl,” the vizier suggests. Sulaiman Shah says that’s all very well but he can’t be sure of such a woman’s bloodline. UGH UGH UGH. Of course Dandan likes this story.

Anyway, Sulaiman Shah wants a princess. The vizier can help him there. King Zahr Shah, lord of the White Land, has a beautiful daughter. “Seen from the front she fascinates,” the vizier leers, “and seen from behind she kills.” The king sends him as an envoy to win over the girl’s father and ask for her hand. A caravan of gifts sets off and is politely welcomed upon its arrival. Inside the king’s magnificent palace, the vizier opens night 108 with flirtatious, flattering poetry about how awesome Zahr Shah really is. It makes a good impression. Upon making his proposal, the vizier gets unbridled enthusiasm. A marriage contract is arranged on the spot, everyone celebrates for two months solid and the bride sets off in a haze of pomp and glory.

Night 109 sees the full procession arrive in the Green City. Banners are strung up to welcome the princess, all the women of the city are ordered out to greet her, the messenger who announced her approach is given a robe of honour. By nightfall the princess is alighting at the palace with her handmaidens. She and the king enter the bridal chamber, they have sex, before long they have a baby boy – upon receiving the news of which the king once again showers his messenger in appreciation and gold – and the little prince is named Taj al-Muluk Kharan. He grows up well-loved and highly educated.

In night 110, he becomes the kingdom’s pin-up boy. Poems are written about a mole on his cheek. Despite his father’s concerns for his safety, he insists on going hunting all the time with his friends. During one such trip, he encounters a merchant caravan and stops to inspect their goods. While there, he sees another ridiculously attractive young man weeping for lost love. He keeps reciting poetry and fainting. Bemused, the prince goes over to enquire about his situation, offering financial help. At the prince’s command, the merchant reluctantly unrolls his goods. A scrap of fabric embroidered with gazelles falls out and he’s ordered to show it; when he resists, growing tearful again, Taj al-Muluk demands an explanation. The young man begins his story.


The young man is the son of a great merchant; he grew up with an orphaned cousin to whom he was pledged for marriage at an early age. Their names are ‘Aziz and ‘Aziza. While their father was arranging the wedding, they were already in bed together. On the night everything was to be formalised, ‘Aziz went first to the baths and then to visit a friend. Growing overheated on the way, he paused to wipe his face with his kerchief. At this moment the embroidered cloth dropped from above and he looked up into the face of its owner. Night 113 opens with rapture about her beauty; when ‘Aziz opens the cloth, he finds a flirtatious note. She elaborates with some mysterious gestures. So obsessed is ‘Aziz with this new love that he forgets he’s supposed to be getting married.

The wedding feast is all eaten when he gets home and ‘Aziza is in tears. She tells him that his father is so fed up he didn’t show that he’s put the marriage off for a year. ‘Aziz tells her everything that happened. “If someone says: ‘Love starts with choice,’ tell them:/ ‘That is a lie; it all comes from necessity,'” she recites bitterly, but she agrees to help him win over his crush. She interprets the girl’s gestures to mean he should come back after two days and he puts his head on ‘Aziza’s lap to be consoled at the wait.

In night 114, she dresses him up for his date and sends him off with a pep talk. It doesn’t do much good; when he sees Gazelle Girl he promptly faints away. Coming to, he sees her make more inexplicable gestures and goes home to get them interpreted by his cousin. “Why should I harshly be abused for loving you?” she is reciting to herself. “I wish my heart might be as hard as yours.” Overhearing her, ‘Aziz starts crying. It falls to his cousin to wipe his cheeks and ask patiently how his date went. Honestly, this woman is a saint. She tells him he’s been asked to come back in five days time and wait for a message in a dyer’s shop just down the street. During the ensuing wait, ‘Aziz won’t eat or sleep and ‘Aziza tells him love stories to keep up his morale.

The second date doesn’t happen at all. The girl never shows. When he gets home, ‘Aziz sees his cousin leaning on the wall waiting. “Why did you not spend the night with your beloved,” she asks, with mild snark, “and get what you want from her?” ‘Aziz responds by kicking her in the chest, so hard she falls and cracks open her head. I can’t believe how ABYSMALLY women get treated in these stories.

In night 115, ‘Aziza silently gets up to treat her injury then smiles sweetly, apologising for any insult. WHAT. THE. HELL. She tells ‘Aziz to be more patient and go back to his girl tomorrow. It works; the girl goes through more mysterious gestures and ‘Aziz goes home to his injured, emotionally distraught cousin for more assistance. According to her, he must wait until sunset, enter the garden behind the lane and wait beneath a lighted lamp there. Honestly, she should be a cryptographer, she’s a genius. You deserve SO MUCH BETTER than ‘Aziz, honey, he’s no loss.

Proving my point, he wails that she’s been no help at all because he hasn’t hooked up with the beautiful Gazelle Girl yet. She laughs at that and tells him to be more patient. He follows her advice anyway, goes through the garden to a beautiful room where flowers and fruit are arranged, and as night 116 begins, he sits to wait. When three hours have passed, he starts to eat. After that, he falls asleep. When he wakes the sun is baking down and there’s salt and charcoal scattered over him. Confused, he goes home.

‘Aziza is still bemoaning her own lost love; she’s sharper than usual when asked for her take on the situation. She tells him that his eating and sleeping offended Gazelle Girl, the salt and charcoal expressing her disdain upon arriving and not finding him avidly awake. ‘Aziz wails. In night 117, his cousin says she could handle this whole courting business much better if he just let her take over completely. As it is, she instructs him to return to the same place, taking care not to eat or sleep, and wait for the girl again. He doesn’t listen. Once more he eats, once more he sleeps, and wakes to find expressions of Gazelle Girl’s scorn left behind. In preparation for a third attempt, ‘Aziza has him eat earlier in the day and sends him off for another vigil.

Night 118 repeats the same event. This time he wakes with a knife and an iron coin on his stomach; ‘Aziza tells him if he goes back and sleeps again, Gazelle Girl will cut his throat. Charming. Making her cousin agree to obey her, ‘Aziza convinces him to sleep all day long so that when night comes he’s fully rested. Then she has him eat his fill. She also tells him that after he’s had sex – assuming he doesn’t get murdered first – he’s to recite the lines ‘Lovers, by God, tell me:/ What is the desperate one of you to do?’

He goes. And he waits. The night is three quarters over when he starts getting hungry again, eats and sleep looms. Fortunately he notices an approaching light and perks up as Gazelle Girl arrives with a procession of slave girls. She’s satisfied at his wakefulness, convinced he’s still desperate for her. Sending the girls away, she kisses ‘Aziz passionately and they have sex. It’s okay to sleep after that, apparently.

In the morning, as night 119 begins, ‘Aziz gets up to leave. Gazelle Girl gives him a length of embroidery, apparently the work of her sister Nur al-Huda, and agrees that he should come to her every night in this garden. He is so blissed he forgets to recite ‘Aziza’s lines. His cousin is very alarmed when he comes home, looking at the cloth with suspicion. She pleads with him to remember the lines next time. For once, he does as she asks. Gazelle Girl responds tearfully with the lines, “He must conceal his love and hide his secret,/ Showing patience and humility in all that he does.”

He goes home expecting praise from ‘Aziza but finds her in the care of his mother, who roundly tells him off for leaving her so miserable. Upon hearing Gazelle Girl’s response, ‘Aziza sobs out four lines about how hard it is to hide love and tells ‘Aziz to recite them on his next meeting. Gazelle Girl replies: “If he finds no patience to conceal his secret,/ Nothing will serve him better than to die.” ‘Aziz, being a selfish idiot, cheerfully trots back and forth while his cousin wastes away. When he gives her sorrowful response to Gazelle Girl, his lover leaps up in horror, declaring that whoever spoke those lines must be dead. On hearing the full story, she grows furious with ‘Aziz. “It is you who have killed her – may God kill you in the same way! By God, had you told me that you had a cousin, I would never have allowed you near me.” ‘Aziz protests that ‘Aziza has been helping him all along; Gazelle Girl tells him to get the hell out. Good for her.

He goes home to find his cousin dead and his mother blaming him for it. In night 120, they hold her funeral and ‘Aziz’s mother demands to know what he did to break the dead girl’s heart, because ‘Aziza would never tell. In fact, as she lay dying ‘Aziza gave one last set of lines to be repeated – “Loyalty is good; treachery is bad” – and left something for him, but her aunt is too angry to reveal it and ‘Aziz is a heartless bastard who doesn’t take any of the women in his life seriously. He goes right back to the garden only a few days after ‘Aziza’s death. Gazelle Girl immediately wants to know about his cousin. On hearing that she really did die, she weeps with much more genuine grief than ‘Aziz. She’s grateful to ‘Aziza for her help in their courtship and wishes she’d known of her sooner. ‘Aziz tells her that before her death, ‘Aziza forgave him, and repeats those lines.

Turns out Gazelle Girl was planning to hurt him tonight but in deference to ‘Aziza’s wishes, she won’t now. The next section of her speech is so fury-making I don’t know quite how to express how bad it is – Gazelle Girl tells ‘Aziz he knows not the deceit of womenkind and should steer well clear of them now his guide (that being ‘Aziza) is dead, because some wicked lady will probably destroy him sooner or later. I mean, they might, but only because he’s such a callous human being he’s bound to make enemies wherever he goes. I don’t blame Gazelle Girl, actually I like her, I am furious with the narrative for letting her down. Why do these stories hate women so much?

In night 121 Gazelle Girl asks to be taken to ‘Aziza’s tomb. En route she distributes alms in the dead girl’s name and when they reach the grave, she chisels a verse about tragic lovers into the headstone. Honestly, this feels more like their love story than anything to do with ‘Aziz. Gazelle Girl keeps up the affair but often speaks of ‘Aziza, while ‘Aziz cruises along aimlessly. One night, about a year after he met Gazelle Girl, he gets drunk and goes wandering off to meet his girlfriend, only to take a wrong turn and end up in the Naqib’s Lane. He sees an old lady walking along with a letter over which she is weeping. In night 122, we find out it’s from her son, who now lives far away and until recently was assumed dead. The old lady is so delighted to hear the letter that she invites ‘Aziz back to her house so he can read it to her daughter too. To maintain propriety he’ll stand behind a curtain while the daughter of the house listens on the other side.

Only propriety doesn’t have a chance because when the girl is called downstairs she appears with her dress tucked up high, having been pulled from some task, showing off fabulous legs. She wears jewellery in every place it is possible to wear jewellery and ‘Aziz stares like he’s dazzled. Or just like he’s a habitual cheater. He leans in through the doorway to start reading and is promptly shoved inside the hall by the old lady, who locks the door behind them.

In night 123, the girl pounces on ‘Aziz and hauls him upstairs to a large, beautifully furnished chamber where she proceeds to explain his options: death or life. If he wants to live he’ll marry her. She knows all about his affair and accuses Gazelle Girl of all sorts of homicidal iniquity. ‘Aziz is compelled to share the story of his dead cousin and once again ‘Aziza’s plight wrings tears out of an otherwise very scary lady. If not for her respect for ‘Aziza, Abduction Girl assures him, Gazelle Girl would certainly have murdered him by now. As it is, Abduction Girl has fancied him herself for a while now and tells him he’ll be very well looked after if he becomes her boy toy – all the money and nice food he wants. All she asks in return is very regular sex.

She’s incredibly prepared. They have four notaries in the house to draw up a marriage contract on the spot. In night 124 they get straight onto the sex, in one of the most explicit scenes so far. She really, really loves sex and ‘Aziz is hardly complaining. Until morning, that is, when he tries to leave and she laughs at the idea. The house only opens up once a year; until the next time he’s stuck. He doesn’t much care. A life of lazy debauchery suits him just fine. After a year of that, he has a baby son with her but she still doesn’t trust him to come back so before he goes out for that one day of open doors, he is made to swear he’ll return. What does he do with his day out? Go straight back to Gazelle Girl’s garden.

What does anyone SEE in him? Find out his next terrible decision next Tuesday.

The Sharazad Project: Week 44

Night ninety six opens with a recap: the chamberlain is leading an army towards Constantinople while Dau’ al-Makan, Sharkan and their vizier Dandan take a hundred riders and secretly slip off to plunder a monastery. Little do they know that their guide is Dhat al-Dawahi, self-declared ‘mistress of mischief’, and that her plan is to destroy them. The hundred Syrian Christians she disguised as merchants have been granted permission to leave and go to take their next part in her scheme.

Once the royals arrive at the mountain where the monastery is situated, Dhat al-Dawahi sends a note to Emperor Afridun by messenger pigeon, asking for ten thousand horsemen to sneak up to the mountain. There are two big problems with this request – a) most of the emperor’s army got slaughtered recently, and b) how do TEN THOUSAND men and horses sneak anywhere? But Afridun knows she’s the best strategist he’s got and duly sends out the troops. Reaching the monastery, they hide and wait. When the royals and the vizier reach the same place, the only person they see is a monk called Matruhina, whom Dhat al-Dawahi commands they kill. They cut him down on the spot.

The narrative really hates Dhat al-Dawahi, it keeps calling her ‘damned’, it just makes me determined to appreciate her more. I mean, she’s not a nice person, but she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than anyone else left alive in this story.

Her account of the monastery’s treasure was accurate; prince and king load up the lot and wait for the promised beauty Tamathil to appear, but word of the recent battle has spread and she is not stupid. When she has not shown up after three days, Sharkan gets antsy about his army and Dau’ al-Makan agrees it is time to leave. As they descend the mountain, however, they are ambushed by Afridun’s troops. Trapped as they are in a ravine, they cannot fight their way out. Dandan has been here before, on a long ago campaign with King ‘Umar – he tells them to keep moving lest the soldiers toss rocks down on them. Dhat al-Dawahi makes her derision known. “Why are you afraid? You have sold your lives for the sake of God Almighty on His path. By God, I stayed as a prisoner underground for fifteen years and never protested to God about what He had done to me.” And so on.

Dau’ al-Makan and Sharkan take her words to heart. They hold their ground as the soldiers close in and Sharkan, in particular, is so formidable a warrior that nothing they try can stop him. Not everyone is so lucky – by the end of the day the royals have lost almost half the men who came with them, and are looking around in concern for their ‘ascetic’ when Dhat al-Dawahi returns bearing the head of their enemies’ commander. He was actually killed by an arrow before she got to him, but they don’t know that. As night ninety seven begins, Dhat al-Dawahi waxes lyrical about her battle frenzy. She tells them to wait while she checks out the way ahead, then Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan will follow her out of the ravine and bring back reinforcements from the main army.

Of course, what she actually does is alert her allies to the forthcoming opportunity and lead Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan straight into the enemy camp. What’s more, the imperial troops pretend they cannot see Dhat al-Dawahi, leading her two companions to believe they are being punished by God.

In night ninety eight, the prisoners are bound and set under guard. The next day, when Sharkan arises in preparation for another day’s fighting, the imperial forces warn him of their hostages and tell him to surrender – which, after tears and internal wrestling, he decides not to do. He leads his men into battle with his usual fervour, but the numbers are badly against them. Their only hope now lies in defending from the mouth of a cave while awaiting those reinforcements. Who are never coming.

Come night ninety nine, Sharkan has only twenty five men left and is still refusing to surrender. His enemies respond by blocking up the cave entrance with wood and setting it on fire. At that, Sharkan finally gives in. There is some debate over whether or not they should be killed, but the leader of the imperial forces thinks that decision should be left to Afridun, so the prisoners are bound while the soldiers celebrate. The narrative, however, ADORES Sharkan. He’s tied up? Pfft. He goes all Incredible Hulk, bursts free of the bonds and steals the keys so he can free everyone else. His next idea is that they kill a few guards and take their clothes as a disguise, but Dau’ al-Makan is afraid the noise would draw attention and so they just steal a pile of weapons and twenty five horses on their way out. That wouldn’t be noisy at all!

Climbing up the mountain, Sharkan orders the remaining royal forces to scream out war cries as if they are the army come as reinforcements. Dau’ al-Makan doesn’t like this idea either. It will give the imperial troops a chance to come after them. But Sharkan gets his way and as the hundredth night begins it all works out as Sharkan planned, with the bewildered soldiers below fighting amongst themselves. But Dau’ al-Makan is also right, because when dawn comes and they sort themselves out, the imperial soldiers are soon hot on the royal heels. Just as they turn for a last-ditch battle, the real royal reinforcements appear in the distance. With the tables turned, the imperial forces are slaughtered, the royals are reunited with part of their army, and they hear the source of their good luck – facing a siege at Constantinople, the chamberlain wanted his best fighters back before battle commenced and sent a large search party to the monastery.

In the meantime, however, Dhat al-Dawahi has ridden hard for the nearest part of the army to deliver news of a defeat that did not actually happen. The army rides away only to come face to face with their not so dead king and prince. Well, to quote: ‘the sweet scent of Dau’ al-Makan and his brother Sharkan spread over them and both groups recognised each other’. So apparently they even smell really royal. Revitalised, they march afresh on Constantinople. Where Dhat al-Dawahi is already spreading misinformation, as we find out in night 101. They send off a large part of their forces as reinforcements for a battle that’s now long over. When he sees the approaching horses, Sharkan assures Dau’ al-Makan he’ll be protected from whatever danger lies ahead, but of course that’s not necessary. The royals hear of the ascetic’s ‘miraculously’ swift travel and press on.

When they reach the besieged city of Constantinople, it is to find the camp of their army on fire. The ‘ascetic’ appears through the smoke, urging the new forces to avenge their dead companions. Dandan disapproves. “By God,” he remarks, “my hear recoils from this ascetic for I have never known anything but evil to come from an excess of religious zealotry.” LISTEN TO YOURSELF, MAN. YOU ARE FIGHTING A HOLY WAR. WHERE IS THERE NOT ZEALOTRY IN THIS. Sharkan defends her and insists she come with them the rest of the way. Outside Constantinople, the chamberlain lives but is about to flee.

In night 102, we find out just how busy Dhat al-Dawahi has been – separating the Muslim army, sending battle plans to her son and ally. King Hardub is immensely proud of his mother’s cunning; Afridun is her biggest fan. They immediately send out their soldiers. Prayers fill the air from both sides; the narrative reminds us it is 100% Team Muslim. Just as the chamberlain’s forces look routed, Sharkan arrives at full charge. The imperial forces panic and have to be reined in by their united monarchs. As Sharkan prepares for battle, a rider comes out from the opposite ranks to propose single combat. Sharkan will represent the Muslims – Afridun will represent the Christians. By this point, I could not be less interested. It’s just carnage, totally pointless.

Warned by Dhat al-Dawahi, Afridun knows he’s up against a great warrior, but he’s a strong man and an experienced soldier so looks forward to the duel with confidence. The two men deck themselves out in fancy armour, exchange pompous remarks and go at it. Afridun, who has learned a few tricks from Dhat al-Dawahi, causes Sharkan to glance behind him and injures him with a well-aimed javelin; Dau’ al-Makan has his brother brought back to safety and, because single combat was meaningless anyway, the armies go back to hacking at each other.

In night 103, Afridun plans his next move while Dau’ al-Makan and the ‘ascetic’ pray over the injured Sharkan. He wakes in the morning and the brothers are entirely happy to lay that recovery at Dhat al-Dawahi’s feet. Dau’ al-Makan rides out in Sharkan’s place to fight and King Hardub takes on the mantle of his challenger. The latter’s horse gets admiring poetry. Hardub isn’t so lucky – Dau’ al-Makan beheads him and battle recommences. The imperial army is eventually forced to retreat behind the city walls while Dau’ al-Makan goes to check on his brother and share an account of their victories. In night 104, Dhat al-Dawahi sits by and hears of her son’s death from the man who killed him. She cannot hold back her tears, but pretends to be weeping in joy as she plots vengeance.

Sharkan recovers his strength quickly. The brothers part in good spirits that night, each to his own pavilion – upon which Dhat al-Dawahi takes out a poisoned dagger, cuts Sharkan’s throat while he sleeps and kills all his servants for good measure. She then goes to Dau’ al-Makan’s tent, but his guards are still awake so she turns to Dandan. He’s also awake, and suspicious. He decides to follow her when she leaves, only to be immediately noticed and shamed into returning to his tent. Unable to sleep, he goes to see Sharkan – and of course finds a pavilion of corpses.

Dau’ al-Makan is wild with grief when he hears the news and realises very quickly who the murderer must have been. “From the beginning my heart recoiled from [the ascetic],” Dandan declares, “as I know that all religious fanatics are evil, scheming men.” He does know that this is a religious war, right? Because that fact has been jammed down my throat for weeks now, what with all the shouting of ‘infidel’. Sharkan is buried; his loyal soldiers weep for him.

Some time ago, back around Week 33, I was so depressed by the way the female characters of these stories had been treated that I was thinking about ending this project. Nothing I’ve read since has changed my mind; once this story has been concluded, the whole project will be at an end. It makes me sad to give up on it, and I’m sorry if anyone who has been reading along is disappointed. If there was not so consistent a pattern of misogyny, I wouldn’t be taking this step, but every time a female character is introduced I have to brace myself and it doesn’t feel worth it any more. Now that the story has been bogged down with a relentless campaign of bigotry and violence, I am less enthusiastic than ever. As I intend to wrap up this cycle by the end of the year, be warned: some upcoming posts may be pretty lengthy!

Review – The Shepherd’s Crown

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

Doubleday, 2015

An age of iron is dawning across the Discworld with the spread of the railway, but on the Chalk, life goes on much as it always has. Tiffany Aching, who is witch and midwife and whatever else is needed by the people under her care, has settled into her place – but something is not right. For the barriers between worlds are weakening as one of the Disc’s great guardians is lost, and peering through the gaps are the eyes of an old enemy…This time, Tiffany has more to protect than ever. And gods help whatever lies in her way.

I don’t know how to review this. It is the last Discworld novel and from the afterword, it wasn’t quite finished before Terry Pratchett died. It doesn’t feel finished. His trademark zing and exuberance is intermittent; the characters are more laboured, their wins less earned. The introduction of Geoffrey was, to me, largely irrelevant and the development of Nightshade’s character too heavy-handed. But it’s so good to see the much-loved characters again and a world that, over the course of over forty novels, has grown and evolved to hook in generation after generation of readers. In this last book, Pratchett continued to challenge the expectations of conventional fantasy, even the conventions of his own creation. Why should all witches be women? Why should all elves be evil?

Thank you, Sir Terry, for giving us all the chance to say goodbye.