The Sharazad Project: Week 13

NSFW content

We return to night twenty two and the improbable adventures of Hasan, who got kidnapped by matchmaking spirits and gatecrashed his cousin’s wedding, only he doesn’t know she’s his cousin yet and also the ifrit has scared off her original groom. At this point, after we’ve had several pages of lavish description devoted to her body, we finally find out the bride’s name. She is SITT AL-HUSN.

Not the same Sitt al-Husn who defeated a different ifrit in sorcerous combat, but nevertheless, just the name implies good things.

Her plan – made without the nudging of an ifrit or jinniya, I might add – was to insist on an open marriage. That is, be married to the unfortunate groom selected by the vengeful sultan, but sleep with Hasan instead. Her elderly attendant is obviously on board with that, because when she spots Hasan in an alcove of the bridal chamber, her response is, “You well-made man, rise up and take what God has entrusted to you.” I am not making this up.

A few minutes later, Sitt al-Husn finds the man of her choice waiting in her bridal chamber and the other one nowhere to be seen. Life is good! Hasan announces he’s her real husband and the groom was hired as part of a terrible joke. Which means they can skip to sex, a development they greet with equal enthusiasm. There’s a lengthy paragraph detailing their undressing, followed by some truly awful euphemisms for Sitt al-Husn’s virginity, but the upshot is a night of frenzied passion. Eventually they fall asleep in each other’s arms. A poetical interlude follows: ‘You who blame the lovers for their love/ Have you the power to cure the sick at heart?’

I have a terrible suspicion that the ifrit and jinniya were watching, because afterwards they snatch Hasan, half-naked, out of the bed to take him home. It would seem God disapproves of this meddling because on the journey back an angel throws a shooting star and incinerates the ifrit on the spot. The jinniya is so panicked she dumps Hasan outside the gates of Damascus before flying for her life. In the morning, a crowd gathers to stare at the indecently underdressed stranger lying asleep on the ground. “How lucky was the one with whom this fellow spent the night,” they mutter to each other, assuming he got drunk, got lucky and got locked outside the city gates. The wind billows up his shirt, exposing everything underneath, and everyone ogles shamelessly. SERIOUSLY, THEY DO. The wind is probably the ifrit’s ghost or something.

Hasan wakes up to another episode of My Life is Bizarre and asks, with what dignity he can muster, what is going on. No one can answer that. Asked where he was last night, he says Cairo. “You’ve been eating hashish,” someone says. “You’re clearly mad,” someone else adds. When he insists upon his story the crowd collectively agrees upon option B and follow curiously as Hasan stalks away into the city, looking for clothes. At random he enters the cookshop of a reformed thief. The man is notorious locally for his violent temper and despite his reformation, people are still scared; the crowd melts away the moment Hasan sets foot inside the shop. I have to quote the next section because I have trouble believing I’m reading it.

‘The cook, looking at Hasan’s grace and beauty, felt affection for him enter his heart. “Where have you come from, young man?” he said. “Tell me your story, for you have become dearer to me than my life.”‘


Hasan explains the entire mess and the cook, being besotted, believes every word. He advises Hasan keep it a secret – a bit late, admittedly, but the crowd only got a few details before they decided he was mentally unstable so imagine how they’d handle the bit where he was abducted by an ifrit. The cook adopts Hasan on the spot, gives him some clothes and makes him cashier in the shop.

So that’s his morning after settled, what about Sitt al-Husn’s? She wakes alone and is waiting, puzzled, for him to return when her father arrives. He’s so humiliated by the enforced marriage that he plans to kill his daughter if she let the servant touch her, thereby bumping himself up the Worst Father Ever shortlist. When Sitt al-Husn comes dancing out of her chamber, glowing from a fantastic wedding night, he tries to slut shame her and she just smiles, assuming he knows about the joke Hasan explained…which was not actually a joke, just something the ifrit made up and left Sitt al-Husn to deal with. She says she’s pregnant, though how she could know so fast is a mystery, and her father calls her a harlot before going off to look for the original groom. He finds the poor man still holed up in the latrine. The groom mistakes him for the ifrit. When he realises he’s talking to the man who would have been his father-in-law, he bewails his misfortune in being betrothed to a lover of ifrits.

Nighty twenty three opens with more details of the groom’s hellish night being revealed to the increasingly baffled vizier. Once freed from the latrine, he runs off to tell the sultan and Shams al-Din goes back to his daughter. She patiently goes through her story again, showing her husband’s clothes still strewn about. Shams al-Din goes thoughtful when he feels the turban’s fine fabric; unravelling it, he finds a purse of money and a contract of sale bearing his dead brother’s name. It’s all too much – he faints away on the floor.

When he reawakens, it is with great excitement, because destiny. He tells Sitt al-Husn her husband’s real identity, and claims the thousand dinars in the purse as her dowry. Next, he finds Nur al-Din’s letter. It makes such an amazing story that when the sultan is told, he forgets all about his wrath and has everything written down.

Days pass. Hasan does not return; his things are locked up in his uncle’s room, along with a map of the house, for reasons that are not as yet clear. In time Sitt al-Husn gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, who is named ‘Ajib and grows at a truly spectacular rate. At the end of a month he’s the size of a one-year-old. At the age of seven he’s sent to school, and is something of a bully with the other children; after a few years of this, their monitor eventually retaliates by telling the children to encircle him and demand he gives both his parents’ names, or be pronounced a bastard. ‘Ajib blithely declares his father to be Shams al-Din. The children, much better informed of court gossip, laugh and tell him the real story, or as much as they know of it. “You won’t be able to compare yourself with the other boys in this school,” they say, “unless you find out who your father is, for otherwise they will take you for a bastard.”

‘Ajib goes straight to his mother but is crying too hard to speak. When he finally gets the question out, she tries the same lie he’s believed for so long. ‘Ajib is wrought up enough to threaten suicide if he doesn’t get the truth. Sitt al-Husn answers with poetry, as you…do? “They stirred up longing in my heart and left./ Those whom I love have now gone far away,” she sighs. “They left and with them my patience has gone./ After this loss, patience is hard to find.” She cries. ‘Ajib cries. Sham al-Din comes in, hears the story and he starts crying too. Unlike the other two, though, he has the power to change things and makes use of it now. By sobbing strategically in front of the sultan, he gets permission not only to go hunting for Hasan but to have written instructions sent all over the land, giving him the authority to drag his nephew away from wherever he happens to be.

Next Tuesday – what’s happening in Damascus? Is anyone safe from Hasan’s lethal charm, particularly Hasan himself? The al-Din soap opera continues!

An Update of Crowns and Clocks

In a somewhat belated announcement, because of late my relationship with clocks and calendars is not the best it has ever been, Ticonderoga has released the table of contents for their new anthology Hear Me Roar and my story ‘Blueblood’ has made it in! The theme is female heroism, a subject that is not only one of my favourite things to read about but is also wonderfully broad as a starting point. For me it meant a fairy tale retelling I’ve been thinking about for a long time, about lies and love and the unique dysfunctionality of a crumbling royal family.

Now that Cranky Ladies of History is abroad in the world, FableCroft is running a series of articles to accompany the stories. Mine is of course about Elizabeth I, and my post is shameless fangirling over one my all-time favourite monarchs, plus history in general.

Actually it feels like my life has been rather taken over by royalty lately, both historical and fictional, because over the past month I’ve been working through all five seasons of the BBC TV show Merlin. I never thought I’d like it much – the Arthurian legend is not my go-to epic – but for a show that never decided on the age of its target audience, veering between childish slapstick and dark maneuvering, it’s surprisingly addictive and has far better actors than many of the storylines deserve. As I recently watched the last episode and am currently wallowing in fanfiction, it’s probably only a matter of time before I post some proper thoughts about it.

Disney Reflections No.3 – Disgracing the Forces of Evil

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

Sleeping Beauty was the last Disney fairy tale made under the personal direction of Walt Disney, and the last the studios would produce for thirty years. This one I’m watching on DVD, the platinum edition no less, which means it comes with an underwhelming music video for ‘Once Upon a Dream’. To be fair, no one can make me like that song.

The fairy tale: My Fairy Tale Tuesday review can be read here. There are older versions of the story in which the prince’s encounter with Sleeping Beauty takes place on considerably less courteous terms (which makes you think about why those encircling thorns were so necessary) but the one I discuss follows the more popular pattern of love at first sight – it doesn’t even take a kiss to wake her. It then continues after the wedding with vicious family politics. I like it more than I probably should. film: The story opens, as have all Disney fairy tales to date, with a storybook sequence introducing us to the action. King Stefan and his queen (who, I notice, never gets a name) have long been childless and when they finally get the baby of their dreams, they proclaim a holiday throughout the kingdom so that everyone can ‘pay homage’ to the newborn princess Aurora. So, not an actual holiday, then.

The christening ceremony kicks off with a celebratory procession and King Hubert (yeah, the king next door gets a name) shows up with his small son Philip to seal a betrothal between the children. The royals certainly waste no time in cementing their alliances. Such mundane visitors are eclipsed, however, by the arrival of ‘the three good fairies’ – the phrasing of it makes me wonder, are they the only fairies in the kingdom or are the rest on rocky terms with the monarchy? Where are all the bad fairies?

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather appear as diminutive middle-aged ladies who just happen to have magic wands and wings, and are a lot more taken with Aurora than Philip was. Flora’s christening gift to the little princess is beauty, which…is nice, but not the most useful application of magic ever. Did she not consider giving Aurora wicked maths skills for rehauling the kingdom’s taxation system, or a photographic memory for learning speeches? Fauna’s offering of song is a bit more constructive. Merryweather goes last and we never get to see what she had planned – which is a terrible shame as I think it would have been awesome – because at this moment the christening gets crashed by Maleficent.

She holds to the Disney trend of stylish female supervillains with excellent cheekbones and tyranny issues. Having very deliberately not been invited, she stretches out the awkward moment for as long as possible while the royals watch her like hypnotised mice and the good fairies scramble to shield the cradle. All to no avail: she bestows her ‘gift’ on the baby regardless, vowing that on the day she turns sixteen Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. With that, Maleficent disappears in a pillar of green flame.

Is she a bad fairy or a sorceress? Either way, I bet if she was buttered up correctly she’d give fantastic gifts, like razor sarcasm or a flawless right hook. Sadly, that’s not what happened. Once spoken, the curse cannot be undone, but it can be softened. Merryweather changes the magic so that Aurora’s injury will cause an enchanted sleep, not death, and she will awaken at the touch of love’s first kiss. That is of course not much reassurance for King Stefan, who orders every spinning wheel in the kingdom to be burned (goodbye, cloth industry!). The fairies, who are also dissatisfied with the outcome, gather in private for tea and plotting. Fauna is concerned about Maleficent’s mental health and Merryweather is almost incoherent with rage, which leaves Flora to make an actual plan. It is, can I say, a really bad plan: disguise themselves as peasants, give up magic and raise Aurora under a different identity.

Everyone agrees to the plan. I suppose the alternative is doom by spinning wheel, but talk about emotional devastation for the king and queen.

What’s amazing is, the plan works. In a menacing castle at the top of a menacing mountain, Maleficent is literally thundering at her army of low-grade minions, and for good reason. Sixteen years to the day after the fairies slipped away from the castle with the baby princess, they are still looking for Aurora in cradles. “They’re hopeless,” Maleficent sighs, “a disgrace to the forces of evil.” She’s talking to her pet raven, the only intelligent company in the place and from the look of it, the same bird who lived with Snow White’s stepmother. Clearly it has a taste for wickedness. Maleficent sends her bird to hunt down Aurora, before the curse can fail.

Meanwhile, a girl known as Briar Rose is about to turn sixteen. Her three guardians intend to throw a surprise party and bundle her off into the woods to pick berries so they can get on with preparations. Given their total lack of subtlety, it’s a miracle they’ve managed to keep anything secret so long. Also astonishing is how they’ve lived without magic, as they certainly haven’t learned how to cook or make clothes. Merryweather is taking the ban hardest; she imagines they can make an exception for the party, but Flora’s having none of that. This is their last chance to do things the human way. Fauna is having a go at baking, while Flora makes a new dress for Aurora by hand. Merryweather gets roped into modelling. Fortunately for Flora, she’s too upset about the prospect of Briar Rose returning to her birth parents to make a real effort at mutiny.

Briar Rose, entirely unaware, is wandering through the seemingly berryless woods, unleashing her spectacular singing voice. The Disney bluebirds recognise a kindred spirit and whip up a suitable audience of woodland creatures, including a starstruck owl and some mildly bewildered rabbits. Also overhearing her, a horseman in red tries to rein in and just gets unimpressed side-eye from his horse Samson. Only when the word ‘carrots’ is uttered does Samson kick into gear, bounding off in Briar Rose’s general direction and in his enthusiastic rush, accidentally tossing the prince into a river. for of course, the man in red is none other than Prince Philip.

It’s a good thing Aurora has acquired friends among the local wildlife, because she’s led an intensely cloistered life and is still being treated as a little girl by her doting guardians. Even in her dreams of love, she’s never got as far as the kiss. The owl, deeply moved by her story, spies Philip’s cloak and hat drying out on a branch and convinces his friends to steal them; with the rabbits hopping around in the boots and the owl under the hat, they return to Aurora as a makeshift prince. She laughs, playing along, but during the dance the woodland prince is replaced by a real one who seizes her from behind like that’s romantic and not what a really scary stranger would do. He insists they’ve met before, ‘once upon a dream’.

I genuinely hate that song. This scene is at least half the reason why.

Briar Rose has probably never met a boy her own age before. She’s lonely enough to tumble headfirst into mutual infatuation but is also confused, backing off when he goes in for a kiss and babbling ‘never!’ when he asks to see her again. He suggests tomorrow as an alternative. She changes that to tonight, and gives him her address. Honey, no, dreams are not reliable! Do not give out personal information to people you may or may not have encountered in a dream!

Back at the cottage, the dress Flora made is rags held together by ribbon, the cake is falling to bits, and Merryweather is climbing the walls. The others cave, admitting the only way to salvage the mess is with magic. Drawing all the curtains and stopping up the cracks, they get to work with their wands. Fauna chats cheerfully with cake ingredients, showing them the recipe; Flora whips up a dress in her favourite shade, pink, and Merryweather gets stuck cleaning the room because the elder two don’t take her seriously. She takes her revenge by changing the dress to blue whenever Flora turns her back.

This escalates into a colour duel, sparks flying up the unguarded chimney like a whacking great beacon shrieking MAGIC! It does not take a Sherlock raven to notice. Also, the dress turns out a disastrous splotchy mix of both colours. As Briar Rose returns, Merryweather quickly magics it to straight blue. Not that she really needed to bother – the girl is giving off a lovestruck vibe that can be seen in the dark and when they realise she’s met a boy the fairies act like someone’s died. In a manner of speaking, she has. Briar Rose learns her true identity, and at the same time, that she’s betrothed to a man she’s never met. She runs upstairs to cry. No cake is eaten.

Her parents, on the other hand, are preparing for a celebration sixteen years in the making. King Stefan’s banquet hall is set up for a huge feast and he’s trying to discuss his parental anxieties with his friend King Hubert. Unfortunately, Hubert is an insensitive lout who’d rather get them both drunk on endless toasts to the future. He cares less about Aurora’s return than the ensuing marriage – he’s already had a house designed and built for the newlyweds – and the grandchildren he hopes to have. Realising his daughter’s life is being planned out before he’s even met her, Stefan tries to object and his intoxicated friend takes immediate offence. It goes a lot less diplomatic from there. “Unreasonable, pompous, blustering old windbag!” Stefan shouts, accurately. Hubert attacks him with a fish. They both realise how ridiculous they’re being and drink some more. They are terrible role models.

Aurora may not be around to defend her rights, but Philip is. Riding home with his head in the clouds, he tells his horrified father he’s met the girl of his dreams, he doesn’t know her name and by the way, she’s a peasant. Guess which of these facts upsets Hubert most. Philip takes absolutely none of his father’s rage seriously, drifting off to dream some more before his rendezvous. Hubert doesn’t know how to break it to Stefan. Are they married now? WHERE IS THE QUEEN?

The day is almost over. Swathed in a cloak and her own misery, Aurora is ushered into her parents’ castle through a side entrance and led up a back stairway to a pretty cage of a bedroom, where she can prepare for the big meeting. When the fairies place a tiara upon her head, she bursts into tears. They have nothing comforting to say, so give her the only thing they can, which is space. Not necessarily a wise decision. The fire gutters out, the smoke turning into a green orb. The princess rises like a waxen doll to follow it.

Outside, Merryweather is fermenting rebellion against outdated marriage practices and Fauna, never one for confrontation, is dithering anxiously. Flora, the manager, is the first to realise they’ve lost Aurora. They break into her room, where a doorway has opened in the fireplace. With the fairies following as fast as they can, their cries unheard, Aurora climbs into a tower room where a spinning wheel waits with more menace than any inanimate object should possess. Aurora’s face has frozen in a skeptical eyebrow arch and she draws back a little from the sharp needle, trying to reassert control, but at Maleficent’s order she reaches out. A touch is all it takes. She collapses. The sorceress disappears, triumphant at last.

As the fairies mourn their lost girl, fireworks burst across the sky. The whole kingdom is waiting. How can they possibly go into the hall where Stefan and his queen are straining for the first glimpse of their long-lost daughter, and tell them it’s all been for nothing? Flora, for one, cannot. She enchants the whole palace to sleep while they decide how to save Aurora. Hubert, ever oblivious, is trying to tell Stefan about Philip’s crush while they both fall asleep and Flora, overhearing, works out the Shakespearean misunderstanding that’s taken place. The fairies hasten back to the cottage to intercept the prince, but once again they are too late. Maleficent’s knock-off orcs, incompetent at all other things, can at least kidnap a prince when he’s more or less giftwrapped for them.’s a trio of fairy godmothers to do? They haven’t the power to take on Maleficent directly, but by miniaturising themselves they sneak into her fortress undetected, flitting from one terrifying architectural outcrop to another until they reach the main hall. The minions are dancing fiendishly (probably the only dance they know, let’s be honest) while Maleficent looks indulgently on, petting her raven. She decides to have some entertainment of her own, going down to the dungeons to visit the chained prince. A hundred years will pass, she promises, before she’ll let him go – by the time he can pursue Aurora he’ll be a doddering old man, lucky to make it past the gates. Having left him suitably defeated, Maleficent sweeps out. “For the first time in sixteen years,” she tells her raven, “I shall sleep well.”

As soon as she’s gone the fairies are in there, busting Philip’s manacles and giving him weapons – a Shield of Virtue and a Sword of Truth. They are running through the fortress when the raven spots them and sounds the alarm. The minions attempt to pin them with boulders; the fairies transform these into soap bubbles, and the arrows that follow into flowers. Who says pretty magic can’t win a war?

Merryweather, who’s taken a passionate dislike to the raven, turns it into a statue. Maleficent is devastated and retaliates by conjuring a labyrinth of thorns around Stefan’s castle. Seeing Philip stubbornly hacking his way through, she then uses her final magic wildcard: transforming herself into a gorgeous purple and black dragon, accessorised with livid green flame. Philip scrambles a retreat, losing his shield in the rush. He’s soon backed up on the edge of a cliff. In their panic, the good fairies ditch pretty for some old fashioned fury. They enspell his sword so that when it is thrown, it embeds itself in Maleficent’s heart. She tumbles off the cliff, leaving behind only a stain of black and purple with a sword stabbed through the dirt.

Unimpeded, Philip hurries through the castle to Aurora’s chamber. The music swells. I’d buy the romantic moment more if she didn’t look so green and zombie-ish. Philip, nothing daunted (he’s a man in love, you know) leans in for the kiss and Aurora wakes with a smile. Arm in arm with her handsome prince, she descends to greet her parents with remarkable poise. Hubert watches on bewilderedly while his son and future daughter-in-law dance off into the clouds.

I think the clouds are allegorical but it’s hard to be sure.

Watching proudly from above, Flora suddenly notices that Aurora’s dress is blue and flicks her wand irritably, changing it to pink. Merryweather makes it blue again. The battle continues as Aurora dances on, oblivious, into her happy ending.

Merryweather totally wins, though.

Spot the Difference: The first two fairy tales Disney adapted stuck very close to the original plots, merely emphasising suitably cartoonish elements, but this one veers noticeably into new ground. The biggest difference is obviously, no hundred years of sleep – Aurora barely has time to take a nap before Philip comes to get her, and she met him first, so there’s plausibly implied consent to the kiss. Given that the film ends just before the marriage, there’s obviously no cannibalistic mother-in-law either – no mother-in-law at all from the look of things, and the queen’s role is depressingly slight.

On the upside, the fairy godmothers are much more proactive (though sadly they have no dragon chariots. You let me down, Disney). Raising a princess as a commoner is a familiar fairy tale trope but new to this particular story, and while Aurora may be stripped of agency in many ways, you can see she has a life of her own. Used to running wild in the forest, comfortable with the friendly muddle of her home and guardians, she’s a much-loved, well-adjusted girl. If you’re going to adapt a fairy tale, that’s a good place to start.

Review – Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Blue Lily, Lily Blue (The Raven Cycle No.3) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2014

When the cursed girl and the raven boys met, each came with their own secrets. Blue, the  daughter of a psychic, knows one of her friends is doomed to die. Ronan’s dreams come to life. Gansey was resurrected on the ley line because Noah was murdered there, and now their friend Adam is bound to the service of its magic. In the search for the legendary king Glendower they have encountered many wonders, but now Blue’s mother has vanished, the ley line’s demands are getting louder and a legend hunter has come to town. The dream is turning into a nightmare.

This book is difficult to review because not much definably happened in it. The first two books – The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves – both had similarly slow pacing, but Blue Lily, Lily Blue did not provide nearly enough action or emotional punch to compensate. The ‘destined’ romantic relationship continues to exasperate me, while the relationship that I actually care about barely advanced at all. Hopefully the long set-up will pay off in the fourth and final book of the series, The Raven King.

The Sharazad Project: Week 12

Back to night twenty, when Ja’far is bargaining for his slave’s life with the story of the vizier Nur al-Din ‘Ali and his brother Shams al-Din Muhammad. Are the two cases connected in any way? Probably not, since Ja’far begins by saying ‘in the old days’. The old days in Egypt, to be specific, when a philanthropic sultan ruled with the support of his highly competent vizier. This vizier has two sons, ‘unequalled in comeliness and beauty’, but the younger, Nur al-Din ‘Ali is so stunning that people come from all over the place to check him out. Yes, seriously. When their father dies, the sultan appoints the young men as joint viziers. It’s a lovely gesture. Not necessarily wise.

The brothers are very happy with the arrangement, though, and it’s convenient that when the sultan goes travelling one vizier can go with him while the other remains behind. The elder brother has been doing some serious thinking and pulls Nur al-Din aside before he leaves. “Brother, it is my intention that you and I should marry on the same night,” he begins. “Do what you want,” his younger brother agrees, but Shams al-Din is by no means done. Not only does he want them to marry at the same time, he wants them to get their wives pregnant at the same time, for both women to give birth on the same day, for one to produce a girl and the other a boy and for the hypothetical cousins to get married. Clearly he’s given this some thought.

Instead of pointing out life is rarely that simple, Nur al-Din gets into the plan and asks what dowry would be appropriate for Shams al-Din’s daughter. “I shall take from your son,” Shams al-Din announces, “three thousand dinars, three orchards and three estates. On no other terms will the marriage contract be valid.” Nur al-Din is insulted by the steep price, given they are brothers and all. “You should give your daughter to my son without asking for any dowry at all,” he retorts, adding the revolting sexist aside, “You know the male is better than the female.” Like a good not-actually-a-dad, Shams al-Din is infuriated on his non-existant daughter’s behalf. He says he only lets Nur al-Din share the vizierate out of pity, to give him something to do, and now he’s so furious he’s breaking off the marriage. Of those kids they don’t have.

I find the escalation of this argument completely believable.

The next day Shams al-Din sets off with the sultan for the pyramids at Giza, and Nur al-Din makes preparations for a journey of his own. “Lions that do not leave their lair will find no prey,” he broods. “Arrows not shot from bows can strike no target.” Basically he’s done being co-vizier with his high-handed brother and is striking out on his own. He rides off into the desert, and after days of travel he ends up at Basra. Here his rich possessions catch the eye of the local vizier, an elderly and astute individual who makes some inquiries and arranges an introduction. Apparently he’s also a good listener because the young vizier soon tells him the whole story and announces his plan to overcome his brother’s insult by visiting every city in every land in the world.

Look, he fought with his brother over a hypothetical wedding of hypothetical children, born to hypothetical wives. Let’s not expect him to be reasonable about anything.

The elderly vizier gently points out this is a terrible plan, so why not stay in Basra and be adopted instead? He has a beautiful daughter, in need of a beautiful husband, and as he’s getting on in years he’s happy to step down so his prospective son-in-law can take his place as vizier of Basra. In order to make the sultan accept the switch, the elderly vizier calls all his friends together and tells them Nur al-Din is his nephew. Everyone takes a look at Nur al-Din and ‘admired what they saw’ so much they don’t pick any holes in the story. The young vizier is sent off to spruce up at the baths and returns even handsomer than before, to meet his bride.

Night twenty one takes us back to Egypt, where Shams al-Din has just discovered his brother’s escapade. All the servants can tell him is that Nur al-Din set off for a few days’ me time and never came back. Feeling guilty about their argument, Shams al-Din goes to the sultan to explain and sets a network of agents across the country searching for information. This is the sort of thing I imagined viziers would do and I am pleased. For all his efforts, however, he can find no trace of his brother.

Shortly afterwards he too marries, and because DESTINY, his wedding takes place on the exact same day that Nur al-Din gets married in Basra. Their wives fall pregnant at the same time. Shams al-Din is given a beautiful daughter; Nur al-Din gets a beautiful son. Given how badly they mismanaged their children’s lives before the kids were even born, this feels like the beginning of a new familial disaster.

The boy is named Badr al-Din Hasan. With his father newly appointed as vizier, and winning favour from all sides, little Hasan grows up in luxury, granted an excellent education and the adoring stares of strangers whenever he goes outside. Yes, seriously! ‘They sat in the street waiting for him to come back so that they could have the pleasure of looking at his comely and well-shaped form’. It’s creepy.

Even the sultan is besotted and insists on the boy always being at court. When Nur al-Din falls ill, he tries to give instructions to his fifteen-year-old son but homesickness overtakes him and instead he has Hasan write a letter to Shams al-Din explaining his life since he left Egypt. “If anything happens to you,” he tells his son, “go to Egypt, ask for your uncle and tell him that I have died in a foreign land, longing for him.”

So something disastrous is going to happen. Good to know.

Hasan conceals the letter in his turban and listens to his father’s last advice. Firstly: ‘do not be on intimate terms with anyone, for in this way you will be safe from the evil they may do you’. The second: ‘injure no man’. The third is to keep quiet about other people’s faults, the fourth to avoid wine, the fifth to be financially responsible. Four of these suggestions are sound advice. The first, I predict to be a life ruiner, up there with ‘don’t open this very specific door’.

Nur al-Din dies with his son at his side. Hasan goes into deep mourning for two months, during which time he won’t leave the house, and the sultan – being mildly inconvenienced by the loss of his favourite court ornament – loses patience with this whole grief business. He punishes the slight by appointing a chamberlain as his new vizier and handing over all Nur al-Din’s land and possessions as a package with the job. The vizier’s first instruction is to go arrest Hasan.

Fortunately, some people at court remain loyal to the old vizier and one ally comes to warn Hasan, who has not even the time to fetch money or transport. Using a fold of his robe to hide his face, he flees the city on foot. The first place he goes is the grave of his father. While he sits there, lost and sad, a Jewish money-changer approaches him and oh dear, I’m suddenly very anxious. Are we about to add anti-Semitism to the racism and sexism? But no, Ishaq the money-changer is there because several of Nur al-Din’s trading ships have returned to port and word has not yet spread of his son’s displacement. Ishaq wants to buy a cargo and has brought cash. Hasan is now supplied with a thousand dinars, but the encounter has driven home his father’s loss all over again and he cries himself to sleep on Nur al-Din’s tomb.

As it happens, this graveyard is a favourite haunt of religiously minded jinn. One particular jinniya (a female jinn) sees Hasan’s lovely face shining in the moonlight and is very much taken with the aesthetic appeal of him. He’s still in her mind when she meets a passing ifrit in the sky above the graveyard, and she suggests they go ogle together. The ifrit is duly impressed, but he doesn’t consider Hasan’s beauty to be matchless. He’s just come from Cairo, where the daughter of Shams al-Din has grown up into a stunning beauty. The sultan himself wanted to marry her (which, if he’s the same sultan, is incredibly inappropriate) but Shams al-Din has vowed that she shall marry no one but his brother’s son. So by now he’s heard Nur al-Din married and had a child, but has presumably never contacted him and doesn’t know about his nephew’s straits. This is such a soap opera.

The sultan, it will astonish you, has not taken the rejection well. Out of pure spite, he’s forced the girl to marry the ugliest servant he can find and has ordered the marriage be consummated tonight. It’s awful for both of them – the girl, who has a husband she doesn’t want and has been forbidden from seeing her father, is crying among her friends and the groom, currently corralled at the baths, is a figure of fun to the other men. The ifrit declares the unhappy bride to be even lovelier than Hasan, and so alike in looks they might be siblings or cousins.

Night twenty two commences with the jinniya angrily refuting the possibility anyone could be better looking than her find. Is this how the elemental forces spend their time, hanging out in graveyards and debating the relative hotness of random humans? To settle the debate once and for all, the jinniya suggests they compare the two and the ifrit carries Hasan to Cairo. The poor boy wakes in a panic, reacting pretty much as anyone would when they realise they’ve been abducted in their sleep. The ifrit, reacting pretty much as a creepy kidnapper would, hits him and makes him put on a fancy robe. “Know that I have brought you here and am going to do you a favour for God’s sake,” he then explains. “Take this candle and go to the baths, where you are to mix with the people and walk along with them until you reach the bridal hall.” Once inside, he is to dig into a pocket of apparently endless gold coins and give them to whoever approaches him.

Bewilderedly, Hasan does as he’s told. He soon wins the approval of all the singing girls by filling their instruments with gold coins and when they reach Shams al-Din’s house, the girls insist Hasan come in too or there’ll be no music. The sultan’s chamberlains cave in fast. I am unreasonably delighted by this bargaining.

Inside the bridal hall, all the women, married and otherwise, start crushing wildly on the handsome stranger. They are far gone enough to let down their face veils, which is so obvious a symptom I’m assuming their husbands are not there to see. The unlucky groom looks terrible in comparison to Hasan and gets roundly cursed by all the women present.

Suddenly, the music redoubles and the bride enters. Gorgeously attired and bejewelled, the last word in stunning, she walks right past her husband to stand in front of Hasan and all the ladies ship them like mad. The singing girls are into it too, since Hasan is still showering them in gold. Everyone crowds round the golden couple, leaving the poor groom alone, which is totally unfair and incredibly sad. He didn’t ask for this.

Hasan feels bad about it for a moment, not to mention confused, but doubts depart him as he looks on the bride’s beauty. Can I just point out here that we still don’t know her name? He doesn’t either, and doesn’t care, because for some reason her maids are taking off her clothes and she’s reciting seductive poetry like this is an unusually literate striptease. Redressed in blue, she is ‘a summer moon set in a winter night’; over and over she is stripped and dressed afresh, deliberately showing off for Hasan while completely ignoring the groom. That’s fair enough, she never wanted to marry him and Hasan is, as the story has taken some pains to make clear, extremely attractive. Clad in the seventh and final dress, she makes her feelings known by saying aloud, “Oh God, make this my husband and free me from this hunchbacked groom.” That is unkind.

The guests depart after that, leaving only the bride, her intended husband the husband she’s picked for herself. It’s awkward. The groom tries to take charge of the situation by very politely asking Hasan to leave. Hasan, in turn, tries to do precisely that, but the ifrit stops him at the door. Shippers in this story are truly intense. “When the hunchback goes out to the latrine, enter at once,” the ifrit orders, “and sit down in the alcove. When the bride comes, tell her: ‘I am your husband and the sultan only played this trick on you for fear you might be hurt by the evil eye.'” He then adds, “As fas as we are concerned, this is a matter of honour.” What. Is. Even. Going. On.

As predicted, the groom slips out to the toilet and the ifrit ambushes him in the form of a mouse. Who then turns into a cat. Who then turns into a dog. The groom is terrified, but the ifrit is not even close to done. He becomes a donkey, then a buffalo, booming insults at his victim and threatening to kill him for daring to try and marry Shams al-Din’s daughter. “By God,” the groom wails, “none of this is my fault. They forced me to marry the girl and I didn’t know that she had a buffalo for a lover.”

How is this story real?

The ifrit tells him to stay until sunrise then go away and never come back, on pain of death. The groom does not need to be told twice. Humiliated several times over, he deserves to get out and find a better place.

Wow, this episode turned out unexpectedly huge. Return next week to find out how the sultan takes the switch-up, and also why I am WILDLY HAPPY about the bride’s name.

Dreaming the Way

No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really is…no one could stand that for long.

– Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.

– Jorge Luis Borges

Terry Pratchett died last week. He was a remarkable man and a remarkable writer who should, if there was any justice to these things, have been a part of the world far longer than he was. I didn’t know him. I would have loved to meet him, but I never did and now I never will. What I knew were his books, the characters he wrote and the stories he told. I know the world he made.

The Discworld started out as a satire on epic fantasy, riotous and irreverent. This is a genre rife with problematic tropes and in the early books Pratchett was always tripping over them, but then stopping – as not enough writers do – to examine them closer. The thing I love most about his work is how he would take one of those tropes and twist it into a shape that made sense. You think all dwarves are male? Actually they have a complex and nuanced perception of gender identity in which femininity is intensely private, and the system is being challenged by dwarves who want to wield their enormous battleaxes whilst also wearing lipstick or sequins or whatever the hell else catches their fancy. You think trolls are stupid? Their neurology is really intended for colder climates and under the right conditions they can master the heights of advanced mathematics.

Pratchett asked the inconvenient questions. When a dragon takes up residence in your city and demands a sacrifice, how is the local law enforcement supposed to respond? What happens to the excess mass when a person is transformed into a toad? If golems exist solely to be given orders, what happens when they start making up their own? How would a religious order react if their god turned up on the doorstep? Each idea makes for fantastic jokes, but it’s humour that makes you think. The best kind.

The character of Death is in every Discworld book. A skeletal, scythe-bearing being in black robes, he is also a grandfather, a cat lover, an adventurer; a conscientious, lonely, loveable person just trying his best. But he’ll get the job done, and done well.

Reading a Pratchett novel makes you believe in people. Not in a sentimental way, since the books are all earthy pragmatism and even the most charming characters are flawed, but a sense of optimism infuses his stories, a belief that we can and will do better. On one of the worst days of my life, I threw myself headfirst into a Discworld novel and for a little while I could breathe properly again. Two years ago I dressed up as Lilith Weatherwax and went to the inaugural Hogswatch in July festival in Brisbane; last year I went again and the white rose of my official ‘inhumation’ sits in a jar of pencils on my desk. Watching Hogfather with my mother is a Christmas tradition, part of the cultural language our family shares. Each of these things is a gift between a writer and the stranger who read his words.

It hurts to know the time of new adventures is over. When someone picks up a book by Terry Pratchett for the first time, they won’t be waiting for a new installment, can’t hope to see those characters again once the final book is read. Other people may write sequels and spin-offs, but they won’t be his. They won’t be real, not to me.

What he wrote is enough. The world he created is a rich tumult of imagination, a place where anything could (and generally did) happen. Maybe he won’t write any new books, but he’ll always have new readers.

When writers die they become books. I think that’s true.

If anyone can get a smile out of Death, it would be Terry Pratchett.

The Sharazad Project: Week 11

Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse and murder

Still in night nineteen, we get an unexpected sequel with JA’ FAR, who is my second favourite (Sitt al-Husn holds first place, due to her undying glory). He’s still in the service of the caliph, who is still under the impression he’s egalitarian and in touch with the people. To prove it, he drags Ja’far on a trip into the city, to ask random citizens if they’re satisfied with their governors. I’m not sure what ‘governor’ means in this context, I’m thinking like city councillors?

In the markets they pass an elderly man who is carrying a fishing net and basket, and reciting sad poetry to himself about how wisdom counts for less than hard currency in this mercenary world. “Look at this man and note his verses, which show that he is need,” the caliph tells Ja’far excitedly and approaches the old man to strike up conversation. Turns out he is, unsurprisingly, a fisherman, who has no catch with which to feed his family. Naturally he’s depressed about it.

“Would you go back with us to the Tigris,” the caliph suggests, “stand on the bank and trust in my luck as you cast your net. Whatever comes up I will buy for a hundred dinars.” There’s no need to ask twice. The fisherman casts his net as instructed and pulls up an unexpectedly heavy catch: a large locked chest. The caliph hands over the promised sum and has the chest brought home, where it can be broken open. Within they find a basket of palm leaves, sewn shut; inside that, a carpet rolled around a shawl, and inside the shawl a horrific discovery – the dismembered body of a girl.

The caliph takes out his distress on Ja’far. “Dog of a vizier, are people to be murdered and thrown into the river during my reign, so that I am to be held responsible for them on the Day of Judgement? By God, I must make the murderer pay for this girl’s death and I shall put him to the most cruel of deaths.” Hey, remember that time your own son wanted to decapitate his wife? START YOUR JUSTICE AT HOME.

He doesn’t. Instead he tells his vizier, who has done nothing wrong, that if he can’t produce the murderer within three day not only will he be hanged but forty of his cousins will meet the same fate. Ja’far has no idea where to start and spends the whole allotted time brooding. When the caliph sends for him, all he can offer is indignance. “Am I the monitor of murder victims,” Ja’far cries, “that I should know who killed the girl?” The fact he’s one hundred percent right counts for nothing. A town crier is sent into Baghdad to proclaim the execution. A crowd gathers at the gallows, weeping for the condemned men. One handsome young man pushes to the front of the throng, so that he can speak to Ja’far. “Lord of the emirs and shelterer of the poor, you are saved from this plight. The killer of the murdered girl whom you found in the chest is I, so hand me in retaliation for her death and take revenge for her on me.”

Ja’far seems to doubt the veracity of this claim but is grateful for his rescue. Even as the youth is speaking, however, an old man joins them and claims responsibility too. Ja’far looks bewilderedly from one stubborn suspect to the other, then hands the conundrum over to his boss. “Hang them both,” the caliph decides. WHY IS HE IN CHARGE. “If only one of them killed her, then to hang the other would be unjust,” Ja’far points out. The younger man describes the condition of the body in such detail that surely only the murderer could know. He then offers his full confession.

The girl was his cousin, his wife and mother of his three sons. They were apparently very much in love, but then she fell abruptly, seriously ill and was slow to recover. When she developed a craving for apples her husband searched everywhere, only to return home empty handed – after which she took a turn for the worse. Probably a coincidence. Nevertheless, having asked around the local orchards, the young man learned that the only apples to be had were from the caliph’s own garden at Basra, and at a steep price. He bought them anyway. Sadly they made no difference to his wife, she was too ill to touch them, but after ten days her fever broke and she began to recover.

Shortly afterwards, the young man was shocked to see one of those same apples in the hand of a slave passing in the street. Upon enquiring after its origin, he learned the slave was given it by his girlfriend, who in turn was given it by the husband she was cheating on. The young man went straight home, saw one of his wife’s apples was missing and murdered her without a second thought. He then wrapped the body as the caliph found it and hurled it in the river. Returning home, he found his eldest son in tears. The poor kid had no idea what his father had done; no, he was upset because he took the apple and the slave stole it off him while he was playing with his brothers. The boy was afraid his mother would beat him when she found out. “For God’s sake, father,” the guilty child begged, “don’t say anything to her that may make her ill again.” His father burst into tears. I want to say something viciously sarcastic but feel too nauseous to manage it.

The old man, suspect no.2, came upon the weeping murderer at this point and heard the tale. He joined in the sobfest. For five days they wallowed, like that was any use to the dead woman. “All the blame for this rests on the slave,” the youth tells the caliph, and because he’s a misogynistic tyrant, the caliph agrees. “By God,” he exclaims, “I shall hang no one except this damned slave and I shall do a deed which will cure the sick and please the Glorious King.” (By this, I think he also means God. Add repetitive to his other flaws).

Night twenty begins with the caliph turning on his hapless vizier, tasking him with finding the slave. Ja’far could not be worse at this kind of thing. He locks himself up for the whole three days, since that worked out last time, and as a result is sent straight back to the gallows. Permitted to farewell his family, he hugs his youngest and favourite daughter last. She offers him an apple. A slave in their household called Raihan sold it to her for two dinars. Her timing is flawless.

Delighted at the last minute deliverance, Ja’far calls Raihan into his presence, ascertains the story and drags him along to the appointment with the caliph, who finds the whole thing amusing. I hate this caliph so much. Ja’far unexpectedly insists on his slave being spared in exchange for the tale of vizier Nur al-Din ‘Ali and his brother Shams al-Din Muhammad. Apparently it’s just that remarkable.

We’ll see if that’s true next week.

Review – The White Queen

The White Queen (The Cousins War No.1) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2009

As the war for the English throne rages between the rival dynasties of York and Lancaster, those who have chosen the losing side must take wild gambles. Elizabeth Woodville lost her husband in the defence of Lancaster; now she must appeal to the generosity of the newly crowned York king, Edward. To attract his goodwill she has only her beauty and the blessing in her blood, as a descendant of the water goddess Melusina. Edward is fascinated by the proud widow, but by aligning her life with his, Elizabeth is stepping into a world of treachery and intrigue, glory won with grief.

Ever since I watched Philippa Gregory host a documentary about the women of the Cousins War, I wanted to read her version of events. The conundrum of historical fiction is knowing how much to believe; Gregory includes a disclaimer at the end of the book to help make that distinction, but her theories are compelling and the way she shapes the character of Elizabeth Woodville – a woman of ambition and heart, loyalty and malice – is beautifully done. I also liked the fantasy element woven through and the way it kept the women at the centre of the narrative. This is immensely engaging historical fiction, rich and intelligent. The series continues with The Red Queen.

Review – Revelation Space

Revelation Space (Revelation Space No.1) – Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz, 2003

Originally published in 2000

On the planet Resurgam, far from the rest of human civilisation, Dan Sylveste and his team of archeologists delve into the secrets of an ancient alien culture. Ferociously single-minded, Sylveste fails to notice his crumbling hold on authority. Far away, former soldier Ana Khouri has been accidentally exiled to Chasm City and marks time in her unwanted new existence by playing lethal games with the dissipated aristocracy. Meanwhile, aboard the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity, its captain is dying an extraordinary death and his crew are tracking down the one man with a chance of making him well. It makes little difference to them that Calvin Sylveste is long dead. As each path collides, a terrible truth begins to emerge – and it’s too late to hold it back.

Revelation Space is the fourth Reynolds book I’ve read and the first he wrote. There’s some roughness in his style that is ironed out in later works; for example, times where he tells the reader something about a character that does not match up with what he’s shown. It’s confusing and a bit frustrating, as I liked some of the characters a lot less than he did and others much more. (Mild spoiler: Volyova and Khouri are my favourites. I love each scene where they do anything together.) This is dense space opera, don’t expect a fast or simple read – but the plot is of such breath-taking scale and imagination that the effort is utterly worthwhile. The series continues with Redemption Ark.

The Sharazad Project: Week 10

Trigger warning: references to domestic abuse and attempted murder

Something I was not quite prepared for when I started this project was just how long each story would take to cover. This week I’m determined to finish the current arc, which means an enormous segment. You have been warned! Also, if you need a refresher on exactly how the caliph, his vizier and his executioner came to meet three women with a penchant for binge drinking and bizarre rituals, all segments of the Sharazad Project posted so far have been linked on the ‘Fairy Tale Meta’ page, and for the beginning of this particular story you can go back to Week 5.

When we catch up with the characters this time, they are at the caliph’s palace and the eldest of the mystery women is finally about to tell her story. The black dogs she beats each night are her older sisters and the two women she lives with are her younger half-sisters. All were born to the same father. After his death – closely followed by this woman’s mother – each girl was left a sizeable inheritance. The oldest girls married merchants and join them on a voyage, but both men turned out to be appalling cads who not only lost all their wives’ money, but abandoned the women in foreign countries to boot. Where are the wrathful ifritas when you need them?

It takes five years for the eldest sister to get home, a year longer for the second – both are homeless beggars, reduced to rags, almost unrecognisable to their younger sister (henceforth known as the storyteller, because there are so many sisters). She takes her siblings into her own home and for some time they live in comfort, but despite their terrible experiences the older women are determined to marry again. “My dears,” the storyteller replies, “there is no longer any benefit to be got from marriage and good men are hard to find now. I don’t see any advantage in your proposal.” Getting lectured by their(happily single) baby sister does not elicit caution; the women each remarry without consulting her. Being an awesome person, she covers the costs of both weddings even though she thinks they are a bad idea.

Turns out she was one hundred percent correct about good men being hard to find, because the second marriages take exactly the same pattern as the first and in a few years both sisters have returned in a pitiful state. Instead of shaming them for their poor choice in partners, the storyteller welcomes them home. I just like her SO MUCH.

In time, she decides to travel abroad herself, being a trader in her own right. Equipping the ship to her satisfaction, she asks her sisters whether they would rather come or stay home, and they choose to accompany her. Prudently leaving half her wealth behind in case the voyage goes badly, the storyteller sets off for Basra, but her captain is incompetent and sails the wrong way, so where they actually end up is a mysterious city in the shape of a dove. While the women are disembarking, the captain goes to look around and comes back full of awe. “Come and wonder at what God has done to those He created,” he tells his passengers, “and seek refuge from His anger.” They soon see what he means. Every living thing in the city has been transformed into black stone. Their valuables remain untouched, though, and no one shows the least hesitance in raiding the place.

In the city is a castle. Within its walls the storyteller finds a sumptuously dressed king frozen in state among his guards and advisors; in the harem, the queen is a silk-wrapped statue, transmuted while sleeping in her bed. The storyteller continues her search, opening another door and stepping into an ornate chamber. She sees lit candles and realises someone is still alive in here. In her attempts to find that person, she loses herself in the labyrinthine castle and by nightfall is a little alarmed. She manages to find her way back to the chamber where the candles were lit, and where there’s also a comfortable couch. Reciting prayers from the Quran (also known at the Koran), she settles to sleep.

At midnight she’s woken by a beautiful voice, also quoting the Quran. Reassured that her companion is probably okay, or at least very devout, she follows the voice into a small chapel where a handsome young man sits reading aloud. He doesn’t display any particular surprise at her arrival. In exchange for her own story, he agrees to tell her what befell his city. The storyteller sits beside him, taking in just how hot he really is. After so much poetry about women’s beauty, most of it in sexualised terms, it’s nice to have half a page from the female gaze.

Anyway, what did happen to this city? The young man’s father is the stone king, his mother the queen. Their people were Magians, worshippers of fire, but the young man was raised by a secretly Muslim nanny and adopted her religion. Shortly after her death, a thunderous voice shouted out “Citizens, turn away from the worship of fire and worship God, the Merciful King.” That turned out to be a misleading secondary title, because when they held fast to their own religion they were all turned to stone. The only one left untouched is the prince. When he tells her how lonely he has been, the storyteller suggests he come back with her to Baghdad. She explains that she has a ship waiting, and charms him into accepting.

Night eighteen reveals that she spends the rest of the night sitting at his feet, presumably listening to him read aloud. In the morning, they take what valuables they can carry and return to the ship. The captain, who has been searching for his lost passenger, is surprised at the story of the city’s downfall but happy enough to take an extra man aboard. The sisters are not so good natured. If their insta-hate is ringing any bells, that’s because a gender-swapped version of these events was part of the very first story cycle.

The storyteller suspects nothing. When her sisters ask what she plans on doing with her dazzling new friend, she blithely turns to him and proposes. “Sir, I want to say something to you and I would ask you not to refuse me. When we reach Baghdad, our city, I shall propose myself to you in marriage; you shall be my husband and I shall be your wife.” He agrees. It’s a bit adorable. Her sisters pretend to be congratulatory but are still plotting. Once they arrive in Basra, they drag the sleeping storyteller and her fiance across the deck and tip both into the sea. He cannot swim, and drowns.

Though overcome with grief, the storyteller manages to stay afloat with a plank of wood and is at length washed ashore on an island. She finds a narrow bridge connecting to the mainland and crosses, heading for the city. Suddenly she sees a terrifying sight: a snake as thick as a palm tree being pursued by a skeletal dragon. As the dragon seizes its prey, the snake weeps and the storyteller takes pity on it. She grabs a stone and kills the dragon with one well-aimed throw. Released, the snake whips out a pair of wings and flies away.

The storyteller sits, a bit stunned. Exhaustion catches up to her and when she wakes, there’s two black dogs beside her and a strange girl massaging her feet. Weirded out, the storyteller sits up and asks who the girl is – only to be told she’s not a girl, not exactly. She is one of the jinn, and was fleeing her enemy in the shape of a snake when the storyteller came to her rescue. In thanks, she collected the storyteller’s cargo and sank the ship. WHAT. What about the crew?! It wasn’t even to kill the treacherous sisters, as they are now black dogs. In another display of terrifying powers, the snake girl takes the whole family back to Baghdad, depositing the storyteller and the dogs on the rooftop of their old home. She tells the storyteller that if she will not beat her sisters every day, she will join them as a dog. What a foul contract. Though she hates the work, the storyteller has no choice.

The caliph is amazed by her story. Turning to the second of the three women, he asks why she bears whip scars and she begins her tale.

Having taken her share of the inheritance her father left behind, she marries a very wealthy man who shortly dies and leaves her an exceptionally rich widow. One day an old woman comes asking for a favour: her daughter is to be married but as she has no acquaintances in the city, the occasion is looking very sparse. If the widow will come, many other important women in the city will likely attend too. The old lady is crying and reciting sad poetry. Sympathetic to her plight, the widow not only agrees to come, she offers the bride some of her own clothes and jewels to wear.

Which makes it a real shame that the whole thing is a trick. Thinking she’s being led to a wedding, the widow is instead brought to an opulent chamber where a beautiful girl sits waiting. This girl is an emissary from her brother. He has a crush on the widow and, being apparently unwilling to introduce himself in any normal way, arranged this con so his sister could pass on a marriage proposal. Bizarrely, the widow accepts. Only then does the man in question emerge from hiding. Admittedly he’s very pretty, the widow is particularly taken with his eyebrows, and for an hour they sit together talking. Then a gang of officials come marching in, a marriage contract is drawn up and the young man lays down one rule: that the widow must look at no other man but him and obey no one but him.


She does not. They feast and sleep together and for a whole month things seem great. Visiting the market one day, the widow goes to one particular shop because its owner – a young man, are you getting worried yet? – is known to the old woman, who is now her servant. He brings out his most expensive fabrics and the widow selects what she wants, but he will not let her pay. “By God,” he exclaims, “I shall not accept anything from you, and all this is a gift from me in exchange for a single kiss, which is of more value to me than everything that is in my shop.”


She does not. Nor does she want to give that kiss, but the old woman pooh-poohs the marriage contract and pushes her mistress into agreeing. Finally giving way, the widow permits her admirer to kiss her cheek – and he bites her instead. She faints.

When she comes to, the old woman is plotting guiltily. She leads her mistress home and tells her to fake illness, but the young man spots the bite mark and the widow kind of loses her head. She invents a couple of stories – being struck by shards of wood tossed up by camels and donkeys – and both times the young man threatens to kill anyone and everyone who could have been responsible. “Are you going to kill everyone because of me?” his wife says, rather sharply. “What happened was a matter of fate and destiny.” He suddenly works out what really happened, or some approximation of it, and started howling about betrayal. Slaves comes rushing in. The young man orders that she be cut in two and her body fed to the fish of the Tigris. I’ll repeat, WHERE ARE THE WRATHFUL IFRITAS?

The slaves are not happy about their orders. The one holding the sword makes sure his master is really serious, then plays for time by asking the widow if she has any last requests. This gives her the opening she needs for starting a verse battle. Her husband throws angry poetry at her; she hurls back reproachful quotes. It’s not enough – he repeats his order – but then in comes the old woman, who turns out to have been his nurse as a child. She tells him that the girl deserves no such punishment, but is clearly an unreliable sort and should spend no more time with him. So can she go? NOW?

The young man beats his wife unconscious first. Then he has her slaves dump her at her old house. For weeks afterwards she is too ill to leave her bed; when she returns to the scene of her torture, she sees the place is a ruin. In her distress, she wisely goes to her sister, who is reliably supportive and they end up living together with their other sister and the black dogs. Then one day a group of guests arrive under false pretences, break all the rules and one of them ends up being a caliph. Life is weird.

The caliph has all this written down. For posterity.

Which brings us to night nineteen, as he decides what he should do to fix matters. The storyteller has a lock of the snake girl’s hair; if it is burned, she will come. The caliph performs the summoning and the lady in question appears with a crash of thunder. Her need for vengeance sated, she turns the dogs back into women – then, because she’s magic and knows All the Things, she reveals the identity of the widow’s vile husband. He’s none other than the caliph’s own son. Being her husband, and the law being stupid, he had the right to do everything he did.

I am very angry and about to get angrier.

The caliph calls forth his son. Instead of putting the bastard in prison or banishing him or doing anything even remotely satisfactory, he RENEWS THE MARRIAGE CONTRACT, rebuilds the house and throws lots of money at both halves of the couple, like that’s ever stopped abuse. He then arranges for the storyteller and her recently re-humaned sisters to each marry a dervish, because apparently he’s super into group weddings, and appoints each dervish as a chamberlain of his court. After that he marries the last sister left himself. So, to summarise – all the women lose their autonomy, an abusive relationship is actively encouraged and the only person who escapes the patriarchy inact is a creepy snake lady who’s a big fan of torture. Happy ending? Not bloody likely.

My only consolation is this: the sisters are tough, most of them have escaped awful marriages before, and they have a useful (if terrifying) ally. Maybe they’ll be okay.

Maybe Ja’far will help them run away.

Maybe they will all locate the palace of free love princesses and live in peace forever.

I want these things to happen.

What we know happens is that Sharazad wraps up this story, her second arc so far, and immediately begins a new story. I’m sure she’s hoping, hard as she can, for a happy ending of her own. Join me next week when the caliph discovers a murder and Ja’far turns detective.