Disney Reflections No.7: She’ll Bring Honour To Us All

Mulan has the distinction of being the first and only Disney fairy tale to star an Asian protagonist – given it was made 1998, that’s a bit depressing. Like a fair few items on the Disney back catalogue, it’s currently in the works for a live action remake. I was BESOTTED with this movie as a child, I borrowed the video repeatedly from the library and wrote atrocious fan fiction for a sequel. This was before I realised Mulan 2 already existed and it was terrible.

The fairy tale: Well, to begin with, it’s not exactly a fairy tale. It’s a ballad, and as such I suppose it does not strictly qualify for this project but I love Mulan too much to leave her out. The version of the story I’m using is a 2014 picture book by Li Jian, translated by Yijin Wert, a dual telling in English and Chinese characters.

Mulan is a well-educated child, trained in calligraphy and literature by her father and weaving by her mother. She also learns martial arts and takes to riding as a natural. I approve of this parenting. Then her peaceful world is broken by the arrival of an imperial messenger; her elderly father has been drafted into the army. The only other male member of the family is Mulan’s brother, who is too young to fight, so Mulan dresses herself as a boy to take her father’s place. Her family not only know, they support the decision – her brother and sister help her pack up all the necessary supplies.

She rides away to the frontier, where the army is encamped by the Yellow River. They march on to the northern mountains the next day. Mulan takes no time at all to distinguish herself as a remarkable fighter. Over twelve years of service, she manages to keep her secret and also impress all the soldiers she serves with. The emperor tries to reward her success, but she refuses to accept the offered position and won’t take his gifts – all she wants is a good horse, to go home.

Her parents are thrilled to see her safely returned, even with some army friends in tow; her sister prepares a feast, and her brother cleans her room. Her whole family gather to greet her. Now that the war is over, Mulan discards her warrior’s clothes and dresses as a girl again. When she emerges in a pretty dress with full make-up, her male friends are astonished. Whether it’s that easy to discard one life and slide back into another remains to be seen, but if anyone has the determination to do it, that would be Mulan.

The film: We begin on the Great Wall of China, which is…not doing so great a job, actually, as one unfortunate guard discovers when grappling hooks come flying out of the dark during his patrol and he turns around to find armed Huns storming the watch tower. With great heroism, he manages to set the warning beacon ablaze. Further along the Wall, flames leap up as the signal spreads. “Now all of China knows you’re here,” he snarls, fully aware he’s about to die.

He’s right on both counts.

In the imperial city, General Shang’s first priority is to protect the Emperor, but the Emperor himself is thinking like a winner and planning his counter-attack. He orders a massive recruitment drive across the nation. “One man,” he says, “may be the difference between victory and defeat.” If you are at all familiar with this story, you’ll see a certain irony there.

Outside of the city, word of the invasion has not yet spread and the biggest worry looming on Fa Mulan’s horizon is an appointment with the matchmaker, an event which seems to be a mixture blind date and big exam. She’s prepared by scrawling virtues all over her wrist in case she forgets them. Familiar with Mulan’s inventive streak and her corresponding tendency to wreak unintentional havoc, her father prays devoutly to the ancestors that she’ll make a good impression; waiting in town, Mulan’s mother is having similar doubts. Not so Mulan’s grandmother, she’s invested in a lucky cricket and proceeds to test that luck by crossing a road with her eyes covered. Chaos skipped a generation, I think. I’d like to include a picture at this point, but my internet access is rubbish today and it’s simply not worth the bother. I may come back later.

The second she shows up – late, with straw in her hair – Mulan is hauled off to be scrubbed, polished, painted and coiffed into bridal elegance. She keeps getting distracted, drifting off to advise on chess games and rescue a little girl’s doll, but at last she’s ready to join the queue of hopeful girls standing outside the matchmaker’s house. At this time, in this place, boys bring honour to their families through acts of courage in war and girls bring honour by marrying well. Mulan is committed to getting this right.

Hers is the first name called. During the ensuing interview – and hell, is it like an exam – the ‘lucky’ cricket escapes its cage and and in her increasingly frantic efforts to recapture it, Mulan manages to spill tea everywhere, cover the matchmaker’s face in ink and then there’s an incident with the brazier…long story short, it goes about as badly as it possibly can. Humiliated, Mulan slinks home and hides in the garden. Her father tracks her down, gently assuring her that all she needs is the time to grow into herself.

The adorable moment is ruined when imperial officials ride into town, issuing conscription notices to each family. Mulan’s father is a good man and a loving father, but he’s proud and he accepts the summons despite a bad leg that clearly disqualifies him from service. When Mulan protests, he turns on her with a despairing anger, telling her to learn her place. Through the long night she circles helplessly around the immoveable facts: her father can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons. A girl can’t fight, but someone must answer that summons.

Mulan makes up her mind.

She takes her father’s sword. She puts on his armour. With her hair cut short and the conscription notice in hand, she rides from the courtyard, and by the time anyone realises she is gone it’s too late to fetch her back – if the deception is revealed, she will face execution. Her grandmother prays fervently to the family spirits to keep her safe.

Little does she know, Mulan has been causing debate among her dead relatives as well as the living. Some offer support, others are horrified, most just latch on to the bone of contention to kickstart old grievances (“we can’t all be acupuncturists!”). It’s eventually agreed that one of the family guardians must be woken and sent to protect the Fa family’s wayward daughter. Pint-sized dragon Mushu, disgraced and demoted after failing spectacularly at his last mission, hopes this might be his chance for redemption. Instead he’s sent to wake the Great Stone Dragon, greatest of the guardians.

He does try – the dragon stubbornly refuses to wake and when Mushu gets a bit over-enthusiastic with his gong, the statue promptly falls to bits. Panicked, he flees the scene to go protect Mulan himself.

She’ll need it. The Huns are steadily advancing from the north, leaving a trail of wreckage behind. I find it a little ridiculous how all the ferocious Shan Yu’s men are highly suspicious looking characters with terrible haircuts while the stock standard imperial soldier is a male model.

Anyway, Mulan has reached the army camp and is lurking on the hillside above, practicing being manly. So far the best intro she’s got is “I see you have a sword! I have one too,” which…is probably not an intentional innuendo, but is also not the way to introduce yourself to anyone at all. And she keeps dropping the sword anyway. “It’s going to take a miracle to get me into the army,” she tells her horse. “DID I HEAR SOMEONE ASK FOR A MIRACLE?” Mushu roars.

He puts on a great show with fire and smoke for her, only none of it is his, and she’s less than impressed when she realises he’s about ankle height. Her skepticism does not daunt him. “I’m travel-sized for your convenience,” he assures her, then goes on about his awesome powers. When that fails, he starts howling about dishonour and she hurries to shut him up.

His first advice is on how to walk like a man. It’s terrible advice. Mulan totters into camp and, following a whispered masculinity crash course, proceeds to start a massive brawl. Her commanding officer, the devastatingly gorgeous Captain Shang – son of General Shang – takes one look at the tangle of recruits he’s expected to lead and starts plotting a sadistic training program on the spot. He rightly rests most of the blame on Mulan. As she didn’t consider the need for a male name, she stammers wildly at him before producing one. Thus Ping signs into the imperial army.

Shang’s first act of training is to fire an arrow to the top of a smooth wooden pole and challenge his recruits to retrieve it – the catch being, they have to climb while wearing weights on their wrists. No one succeeds. The following days are a haze of sticks, stones and running. Such a lot of running. Also, Shang does most of this shirtless, showing off his amazing abs and making everyone feel inadequate.

With the rest of the recruits still bearing grudges after the brawl, her own inexperience a constant burden and Mushu’s efforts to help only making things worse, Mulan is actually told to go home. It’s perfect…except it’s not, because she wants to succeed. Figuring out how to wrap the weights around the pole, she retrieves the arrow and earn a second chance. This leads to a rather improbable montage of everyone becoming lethal fighters. Mulan manages to punch Shang on the jaw, making him smile approvingly. The others are warming up to her too, after the display with the arrow, but her life is still one of constant risk. Washing in the river one night, Mulan’s evening is gatecrashed by a trio of fellow recruits wanting a swim. Having chosen the most inconvenient moment possible, they introduce themselves: the thin, chatty one is Ling, the calm giant is Chien-Po and the sarcastic bruiser is Yao. There’s way too much nudity for Mulan’s comfort level and Mushu stages a distraction so she can escape.

On the way back to her tent, she overhears Shang arguing with the imperial official who has been reporting (unfavourably) on their progress. Shang thinks they’re ready to join his father in the mountains; the official disagrees. Dismayed at the thought Mulan won’t prove herself in battle – thereby proving him to the other ancestors – Mushu commandeers a panda, turns a suit of armour into a complicated sort of marionette and pretends to be an imperial messenger so that the official’s hand is forced and the troops are sent out to war.

Cue another montage as they tramp through the countryside, distracting from themselves from their sore feet by dreaming about the girls they plan to marry when they get home. While they don’t say anything really dreadful, it’s awkward for Mulan, who cannot call out anyone on their unrealistic expectations. There’s also several clichés in this section that make it a bit wince-worthy to watch.

Then they reach the mountain pass where General Shang was stationed with his men and it’s wincing of an entirely different sort, because the village is a burnt ruin. Searching for survivors, they stumble across a battlefield littered with imperial soldiers, all dead. Shang is devastated to realise his father fell with them. He makes the only memorial he can, thrusting his sword into the snow and placing his father’s helmet reverentially atop it. Mulan silently lays an abandoned ragdoll beneath it, a tribute to all the innocents who died in this place.

There is no more time for grieving. The Huns are moving onward to the imperial city and Shang’s recruits are the only force standing in their way. As they continue through the pass, the Huns ambush them in a hail of arrows. Shang attempts to launch a counter-assault with his cannons, but the Huns have chosen their position too well. Realising this, Mulan aims her cannon at an outcrop of mountain instead, triggering a landslide.

Good news: the Huns get buried in snow! Bad news: Mulan and Shang do too. She does her best to hold his unconscious body aloft and her friends spot her, throwing a rope to haul them to safety. When he wakes up, Shang is exasperated but impressed at the same time, assuring her of his unequivocal trust. She smiles vaguely and collapses.

As her injury is treated, her true identity is revealed. The bureaucratic official wants her executed, her friends want to protect her, and Shang compromises by leaving her behind as the troops move on. Unequivocal trust doesn’t get you so far these days.

Mulan goes well past misery into the icy calm of self-loathing while Mushu mourns lost opportunities and confesses his own deception. There’s nothing to do now but go home. Whatever happens, Mushu promises they’ll do it together.

What actually happens is a sudden resurgence of Huns as the apparently indestructable invaders break through the snow. Mulan takes her life in her hands to go warn the army. They are in the middle of a celebratory parade and not particularly inclined to listen. Shang is having trust issues; Mulan has no patience for it. “You said you’d trust Ping,” she reminds him. “Why is Mulan any different?” He can’t answer that.

Shang meets the Emperor on the steps of the imperial palace, offering up the sword of Shan Yu as a symbol of their victory. The Emperor tells him his father, the general, would have been proud. Except no, not really, because Shan Yu has not been defeated at all – he’s lying in wait on a nearby rooftop. In a frankly ridiculous reveal, the dancing dragon from the parade is peopled with his soldiers, who promptly take the Emperor captive and hustle him inside the palace. Shang is dashed to the ground in the first attack and the huge palace doors are clamped shut against his frantic pursuit.

Together with Ling, Yiao and Chien-Po, he’s trying to batter down the door with a repurposed statue when Mulan interrupts them with a better idea. Shang doesn’t get much choice in accepting since his men dash off after her straight away. Dressing up her friends as imperial concubines (only Shang gets to keep his armour), Mulan teaches them her climbing trick and they scale the columns at the side of the palace.

The Emperor, meanwhile, is being terrorised by Shan Yu who wants his complete capitulation and isn’t getting it. This is happening on a balcony so that everyone gathered in the square below can see; the stairs are heavily guarded but the Huns hesitate when approached by a trio of rather thuggish concubines, giving Mulan’s friends the chance to take their enemies apart. It’s a distraction to allow Shang access to the balcony. Just in time, too. As Shan Yu swings his blade towards the Emperor’s head, Shang blocks it; Chien-Po bodily lifts the Emperor and swings down on a rope into the square, followed by Ling and Yao, but then Shan Yu gets the better of Shang and Mulan cuts the rope rather than allow him the same route down.

He turns on her, and recognises her as the soldier from the mountain. When he pursues her onto the rooftops in a frothing rage, Mulan uses her fan as an unexpected shield and Mushu sets off a firework – trapped between them, Shan Yu is blown off the roof in a shower of pretty death sparks. Mulan leaps down and crashes straight into Shang. Together with her friends, he shields her when the angry official comes stalking over to be loudly chauvinistic, and Shang gets loudly defensive. The schoolyard scrap is broken up when the Emperor strides out of the smoke in that impressive way only lifetime royals can achieve. He reels off Mulan’s crimes, gesturing pointedly at the burning roof where Shan Yu was just fireworked, while Mulan’s friends make awkward faces in the background.

“AND,” the Emperor concludes, “…you have saved us all.” He smiles and bows. Everyone else follows suit. It’s a bit overboard, but sweet too. The Emperor wants Mulan to become a counsellor; she politely refuses, saying she just wants to go home. He gifts her with an imperial seal and Shan Yu’s sword as symbols of her victory, and Mulan trips over a dozen protocols to give him a huge hug. She, in turn, gets wildly enthusiastic hugs from her friends and an uncertain pat on the shoulder from Shang. The Emperor, who plays matchmaker when he’s not ruling vast empires or sarking at kidnappers, gives Shang a pointed shove in her general direction.

Mulan has finally started figuring out who she is. She’s just not sure her family will accept it. She kneels at her father’s feet, hastily showing him her trophies, hoping to at least delay his anger. He throws them aside to pull her into his arms, just grateful to have her safe. Presumably she saw the rest of the family first because they are calmly watching from the sidelines; her grandmother eyes the sword critically, remarking that Mulan should have brought home a boyfriend instead, and at that precise moment imperial pin-up Shang arrives looking for Mulan. He proceeds to stumble through a terribly obvious excuse for his presence until Mulan, grinning, asks him to stay for dinner.

The ancestors admit Mushu did a pretty decent job and reinstate him as a guardian. It’s a good excuse for a great party.

Spot the Difference: The version of the ballad I read was very simple, therefore it’s hard to draw comparisons. The time scale is the most obvious difference – the Mulan of the ballad serves over a decade in the army and doesn’t reveal her identity as a woman until she gets home. She also has a larger family and no smart-mouthed dragon giving her advice, which might explain the longevity of her deception.

The thing I love best about this movie is, even though it is about Mulan carving out a place in a traditionally male sphere, she has fantastic relationships with her mother and grandmother, and they in turn have a marvellous rapport with each other. Until this point there had been incredibly few mothers in Disney fairy tales, let alone grandmothers. Mulan may not feel comfortable in her own skin through most of the story, but it is shown time and time again that her family love and support her in every way they can. Even the dead ones (considerably more judgmental than the living) have her back.

Mulan’s male friends have rather less nuance. Why would they need it? Their expectations of the world, up until they meet Mulan, have never been challenged – but once they do realise who Mulan really is, they back her up, even when her plan is basically ‘put on dresses and hope the guards here are really stupid’. They trust her judgement. There’s a strong romantic element to Mulan’s relationship with Shang, of course, but she wants his respect more than his affection and at the end he chooses to come find her, in full knowledge of the person she really is.

The story is quite a tangle from an adult’s perspective, bringing up issues of gender norms and toxic masculinity as well as issues of cultural translation. The representation of China is…well, really clumsy in parts, and rather clichéd, but doesn’t seem actually offensive. I’m certainly not in a position to say for sure and if anyone has a different perspective on that, please talk to me about it in the comments.

There’s some concerning censure about Mulan being a ‘cross-dresser’ with a ‘drag show’ – the terms are not inherent criticisms but the way they’re said makes it clear these are negative descriptions and that’s deeply unhelpful. Fortunately, both instances of cross-dressing end up being treated with immense positivity by the narrative. Hyper-masculine attitudes are gently (and sometimes not so gently) mocked, while the heavy policing of femininity is refuted at every step.

I don’t think Mulan has really decided who she is even at the end of the movie – but she’s not ashamed of that uncertainty any more. She knows she’s respected, and trusted, and loved.

Plus, she knows now that she is excellent with explosives. That’s an important life skill.

Review – One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – Agatha Christie

Fontana, 1990

Originally published 1940

There is nothing suspicious or unexpected about Mr Morley, respected dentist. His clients are another matter. From financial magnate Alistair Blunt to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, his waiting room could be the scene of a grand drama – but the one who ends up dead is Mr Morley himself. It looks like a suicide. Poirot, however, believes otherwise. The closer he looks, the stranger the case appears. The question is: was Morley really meant to die that day? And if not, who will be next…

This is precisely the sort of story I expect to get from Agatha Christie. The language is crisp, the mystery is fiendishly cunning and it’s immensely relaxing in a slightly disturbing way. There is an underlying mess of racism, sexism and classism, which is something else I expect from a Christie novel. I’m fond of Poirot so it was nice to see him show up early for once!

The Sharazad Project: Week 30

Last week we met an amazing lady wrestler and her totally unimpressed supervisor Dhat al-Dawahi. They’re getting ready to battle it out. As night forty seven gets underway, the girl challenges, “Then come and do it, if you have the strength,” and the old lady one-ups her, insisting they do it naked. Unknown to both of them, the king’s son Sharkan is watching, passionately backing the girl. She goes straight for her opponent’s windpipe, lifting Dhat al-Dawahi right off the ground. The old lady hits the ground hard. In retaliation, she…farts. Well, that’s mature.

Sharkan, at least, finds this amusing. He creeps closer while the two women are distracted. The girl shows excellent sportsmanship by helping Dhat al-Dawahi dress and apologising for the force of the fall. The old lady stalks off without a word. All the other girls are still there, by the way, the ones that our champion defeated first and tied up by the stream.

Sharkan proves he’s a truly foul person by charging towards the unarmed women, hoping to capture and enslave them. My princess responds by leaping across the stream and demanding an explanation for his terrible behaviour. I have to quote absolutely everything she says next. “Who are you, fellow? You have interrupted our pleasures and have brandished your sword as though you were charging against an army. Where do you come from and where are you going? Don’t try to lie, for lying is one of the qualities of base men, but tell the truth, for this will do you more good. No doubt you have lost your way in the night and that is why you have come to a place where the most you can hope for is to escape unscathed. You are now in a meadow where, were I to give a single cry, four thousand knights would come to my aid. Tell me what you want. If you need to be directed to your road, I shall guide you and if you want help, I shall help you.”


Sharkan tells her that he’s a ‘Muslim stranger’ (oh thanks, could you be a bit vaguer? Are you also human and male?) who came alone looking for plunder, which he shall claim in the form of the girl and her companions. “You have found no booty at all,” the girl scoffs, “for by God, these girls are no prey of yours. Didn’t I tell you that it is a disgrace to lie?” WILD FANGIRLING. “By the truth of the Messiah,” she continues, “were I not afraid that your blood would be on my hands, you would find to your cost that my shout would fill this meadow with horse and foot. But I have pity on strangers, and if it is booty you want, then dismount and swear to me by your religion that you will use no weapons against me. Then you and I can wrestle together, and if you throw me, then put me on your horse and and take us all, but if I throw you, you will be at my command. Swear to that, as I am afraid of treachery on your part.”

Sharkan is confident in his manly warrior skills and agrees to the challenge. She makes him swear the most serious oath she can think of, then tells him to cross the stream to fight her. He says he can’t. In response, she leaps across the water and even someone as awful as Sharkan is a little bit stunned by her general awesomeness. She has no patience with his gaping, briskly encouraging him to get on with it.

They start wrestling. The girl twists in his hold, throws him to the ground and sits calmly on his chest. “Muslim,” she remarks, “you think that you are permitted to kill Christians, so what do you say about my killing you?No one loses by acting generously,” she adds, and lets him up. He is a sore loser, insisting he only failed because he was overcome by her extraordinary beauty, and he deserves another chance at beating her. She laughs at him and says she’ll untie her friends first. “Go off to a safe place,” she tells them, “so that this Muslim may stop coveting you.”

In the second bout she knocks him over even faster and lets him get up again, “because of your own weakness, your youth and the fact you are a stranger.” She knows about the king’s army and suggests Sharkan send his better warriors to her for instruction. He grinds out that he’s been befuddled by her amazing thighs, so they have to fight to best of three. “Why do you want to try again, loser?” she laughs. YES, REALLY. “But come on if you must, although I’m sure this bout will be enough.”

Sharkan puts up a better show this time. The girl notices and approves. She then grabs him by the thigh and flips him onto his back. “What an unfortunate man you are!” she mocks. “Go back to your Muslim army, and send someone else, for you are not capable of exertion.” With that she leaps back across the stream and taunts lightly, “It is hard for me to part from you, master, but you should go back to your companions before dawn, lest the knights come and take you at lance point. As you don’t have the strength to defend yourself against women, how could you cope with them?”

Pleading in the most melodramatic terms that he is the slave of love and cannot do without her, Sharkan asks to accompany her, pointing out that by the terms of their agreement he is now hers. She lets him follow her to the convent. The girls from the stream are waiting there, watching him. Sharkan wishes he could show off these ladies to Dandan, and tries to convince the champion to accompany him back to his army’s encampment.

She is not fooled for a second. “How can you say something that shows you to be so deceitful,” she snaps, “and how could I do what you suggest? I know that if I fell into the hands of your king, ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, I would never be freed…Were I in his power, he would not be held back by any fear of me since, according to your creed, I would be lawfully yours…How is it, then, that you can talk to me like this? As for what you say about looking at the Muslim heroes, by the truth of the Messiah, that is a silly point. I watched your army when you came to our lands two days ago, and when they advanced, I saw no signs that they had been trained by kings.” She says he could not speak to her this way if he were Prince Sharkan himself. That seems to be the only thing about him she doesn’t know. She wants to ride out against the invading army and kill Dandan and Sharkan in battle.

“I am not going to describe myself to you as brave,” she tells Sharkan, “as you have already seen my trained skill and strength…Had Sharkan been in your place tonight and had he been told to jump the stream, he could not have done it…I could come out against him, dressed as a man, capture him and put him in chains.”

Night forty seven ends there and so does this week’s segment. This girl may have outshone even the glorious Sitt al-Husn; if I don’t get her name soon I’ll be very annoyed, and if Sharkan gets a single finger on her, I will be incandescent with rage.

The Sharazad Project: Week 29

We are still on night forty five but are beginning a new segment, the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family. They are a warlike lot, conquering a huge swathe of territories across the Middle East and Asia. I don’t have sufficient historical knowledge of the area to know if this has the tiniest basis in fact; it doesn’t seem at all probable but of course sounds terribly impressive as a kingly accomplishment.

‘Umar’s only son Sharkan takes after him, a terror on the battlefield, and has been named his successor. But the king has four wives and a staggering three hundred and sixty concubines – I suppose if you’ve conquered half a continent, you expect your household to be similarly disproportionate in size – and when one girl falls unexpectedly pregnant, Sharkan’s prospects are placed in doubt.

He’s a notoriously violent twenty-year-old warrior prince. This will not end well.

The king doesn’t care. He quite likes the idea of having another son – assuming, of course, that he’s so extremely manly that another son is guaranteed. The pregnant girl is a Byzantine slave named Sophia, very beautiful and very intelligent. She assures the king that when she gives birth to his son, she’ll train him to be the very epitome of culture. When she goes into labour, everyone is on edge, waiting for news.

She gives birth to a girl. Messengers go to inform the king and Sharkan, but Sophia keeps the midwives close – her labour is not done yet. She was carrying twins. The second child is a boy, as healthy and beautiful as his sister. The king is pleased, though he only wants to see his son. The boy is named Dau’ al-Makan and the girl is Nuzhat al-Zaman. Each is issued an extensive entourage of carers. All the king’s officials go to congratulate him and celebrations spread outward through the capital. Sophia is, thankfully, not sidelined; the king places his young children’s education in her care.

Sharkan, meanwhile, has been away for years conquering places and has no idea yet that there was another child. This family is pretty messed up.

One day an envoy from the Byzantium emperor arrives to ask for the king’s help against the lord of Caesarea. The conflict began, we’re told, when an Arab king discovered a treasure trove dating back to Alexander the Great, including three huge white jewels inscribed with secret words. A child who wears one such stone will never suffer pain or sickness, adding enormously to their value. The Arab king showed extraordinary self-restraint by sending all three jewels to the Byzantine emperor, along with two loaded ships of other treasures. They never reached their intended owner; pirates in the pay of the lord of Caesarea stole the lot and killed the entire crew. The emperor has twice tried to revenge himself and failed. He’s now taking to the battlefield personally and has vowed to destroy his foe or die trying. He wants King ‘Umar to help. Got to say, he’s not really selling this plan.

Night forty six rectifies that. The envoys have brought presents. Fifty slave girls and fifty soldiers, to be precise, all expensively attired. When King ‘Umar consults his viziers, the elderly Dandan suggests he send out an army under the command of Sharkan, on the basis that a) ‘Umar has already accepted the presents and it’s just rude not to reciprocate, plus b) it will be excellent PR if ‘Umar wins this war, rulers from all over will send him more presents in the hope he’ll do the same for them. The king agrees with this logic. Dandan is now his favourite vizier and his reward is to be sent out with Sharkan’s troops. As for Sharkan himself, ‘Umar tells him to prepare for a new campaign and to obey Dandan’s directions. They ride out with ten thousand soldiers, trumpets blaring and flags flapping, a vision of royal power.

They travel for twenty days. On the twenty first, they come to a large valley suitable for a long camp and Sharkan orders that his army remain here for a few days while he checks out the lay of the land. By this I mean, rides off completely alone and keeps going for so long he falls asleep on horseback. When he comes to, he finds himself on the edge of a beautiful moonlit meadow and hears laughter. Curious, Sharkan goes to investigate. He hears a woman say, “By the truth of the Messiah, this is not good on your part. If anyone says anything at all, I shall throw her down and tie her up with her own girdle.”

A fortified convent stands in the meadow. A stream passes through its grounds and by the water stands an older lady, accompanied by ten heavily bejewelled girls. One in particular catches Sharkan’s eye, with her wide eyes and curly hair. “Come here,” he overhears her say to the other girls, “so that I can wrestle with you before the moon goes down and the day breaks.” And they do. And she slams each girl to the ground, tying them up with their own girdles.

The older lady refuses to be impressed. She says she could beat all these girls herself if she wanted so she’ll fight the champion herself. The girl smiles to conceal her growing anger. “Do you really mean to wrestle with me, Dhat al-Dawahi,” she asks, “or are you joking?” Dhat al-Dawahi does not joke.

This is BRILLIANT. Join me next week for the showdown.

Review – This Shattered World

This Shattered World (Starbound No.2) – Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Allen & Unwin, 2014

The planet Avon is of little importance on the galactic scale, a poorly terraformed young colony not yet self-sufficient enough to claim independence. Rebelling colonists demand greater freedoms, waging guerrilla warfare from the endless swamp; meanwhile, the military struggles to keep order as a mystery sickness drives its soldiers to terrible acts. Captain Jubilee Chase is the only one who seems to be immune. She knows there is something wrong with her, but it’s not until the rebel Flynn Cormac crashes into her life that she realises there may be something wrong with the whole of Avon.

This is the sequel to These Broken Stars but follows a different pair of main characters, with the previous protagonists taking cameo roles. I found this plot much weaker. Several key points were underdeveloped and the climax felt much too simplistic. The book’s best strength was in world building, expanding on the growth of colonies and the transference of Earth culture into a new world. The third book of the trilogy, Their Fractured Light, is slated for release in December.

Review – Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch No.2) – Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014

The Radch empire has splintered. Anaander Mianaai, made near immortal through generations of clones, has reigned for millennia but a schism in her consciousness has led to an extraordinary civil war. Breq used to be the emperor’s weapon; now she serves in name only, doing what she can to protect those under her care. That alone will be no easy task. With the military splitting into confused factions and every citizen of the Radch forced into making impossible choices, Breq will be lucky to stay alive.

Ancillary Justice was a remarkable series opener. Leckie made a point of showing how heavily entwined language and perception are – for instance, with a whole culture that uses only female pronouns, she created an almost genderless novel, which was both fascinating and disconcerting to read. Ancillary Sword is very much a middle book, extrapolating on the events of the previous installment while setting up the scene for a third. That means there’s not as much action, but it does allow a greater exploration of the cultures within the empire and the messy clash against Radch expectations. It’s solid, thoroughly enjoyable science fiction. Book three, Ancillary Mercy, will be released in October of this year.

The Sharazad Project: Week 28

The current story is the sort of Shakespearean melodrama where everyone misunderstands each other and refuse to listen to reason. Luckily Qut al-Qulub is a persistent young woman and though the caliph has locked her up as a punishment for all that sex she didn’t actually have, she’s not taking it quietly. When he passes by her room, he hears her loudly waxing lyrical on the virtue and chastity of her hero Ghanim, who took care of her in her hour of need, yet his reward for that kindness has been persecution from the caliph. “There must come a time when you and the Commander of the Faithful will stand before a Righteous Ruler,” Qut al-Qulub proclaims. “You will demand justice against him on a day when the judge will be the Lord God, Great and Glorious, and the witnesses will be the angels.” BURN.

The caliph is troubled by what he’s overhead and has her brought to his quarters. She appears as the picture of sorrow, defending Ghanim’s morals with fierce piety. Typically, now Ghanim has disappeared and his mother and sister have been made homeless, the caliph realises he may have overreacted the teeniest bit. He promises to do whatever Qut al-Qulub wishes. She asks for Ghanim, her ‘beloved’, which – wow, she has nerve, but not only does she get permission to go looking for her really-not-a-boyfriend, she gets a thousand gold dinars to finance the search. Well played, Qut al-Qulub!

She spends the money with care, too, making charitable donations in Ghanim’s name and offering the superintendents of various markets in the city sums of money to give away likewise. One of them is, unknown to her, Ghanim’s benefactor. He offers to bring her home and introduce her to the tragic mystery man currently brooding there, being tended by the superintendent’s kind-hearted wife. Qut al-Qulub gets her hopes up. When she sees Ghanim, however, he’s so emaciated and unwell that she can’t be sure it’s the same man. Hoping that it is, she orders wine and medicine (an…interesting combination) and sits with Ghanim for a time. Presumably he’s too out of it to recognise her.

The superintendent then introduces Qut al-Qulub to Ghanim’s mother and sister, since they are also attractive and unfortunate and Qut al-Qulub seems interested in that sort of thing. There’s blatant elitism going on here, the superintendent is clearly biased in the women’s favour because of the trappings they retain of previous wealth, but they’ve been through hell recently and deserve a bit of luck. Qut al-Qulub sheds sympathetic tears over their condition, the two women cry because they’re actually living it, and no one swaps any explanations. It’s not until Qut al-Qulub hears a sobbed reference to ‘our Ghanim’ that she makes the connection.

As night forty four begins, she takes Ghanim’s mother and sister firmly under her wing, paying the superintendent to house them in style. After having her first proper conversation with them, she suggests they all go and see Ghanim again. The superintendent’s wife is included in the group, being considered a good friend to each of them. Also, it’s her house. The interview is dramatic: Ghanim comes to enough to call Qut al-Qulub’s name, she confirms his identity and faints away at his bedside. His mother and sister follow suit. A good thing they did bring the superintendent’s wife, at least someone is still conscious. When the collective swooning fit has passed, Qut al-Qulub eagerly reunites her very-nearly-a-boyfriend with his family and tells him about the caliph’s change of heart. Not only has the caliph decided the young couple can be together after all, he wants to meet Ghanim himself.

Qut al-Qulub takes Ghanim’s mother and sister to the baths and provides everybody with suitably fancy attire. She also personally prepares her new friends a series of restorative meals. Once they have been taken care of, she returns to the palace for a talk with the caliph. He wants to send Ja’far to collect Ghanim but Qut al-Qulub insists on getting there first so she can give her for-pity’s-sake-definitely-a-boyfriend a quick pep talk before the big audience. She also gives him a lot of money to tip the caliph’s attendants as he goes in. By the time Ja’far arrives, Ghanim is all set. He greets the caliph with deeply respectful poetry and, properly buttered up, the caliph welcomes him.

Hm. It seems the nights are getting shorter. Night forty five opens with Ghanim telling the caliph his story, all about the graveyard and the slaves and rescuing Qut al-Qulub. The caliph asks his forgiveness. Ghanim politely dismisses any need for that. (There is EVERY NEED). Pleased, the caliph gives him a palace and allowance, to be shared with his family. When the caliph meets Ghanim’s sister Fitna, he admires her beauty and wants to marry her; the ensuing double wedding is shared with Ghanim and Qut al-Qulub. As always, the caliph orders the whole affair be written down for posterity.

There’s no reference to Lady Zubaida. I’m going to assume she gets away with everything.

Review – The Red Queen

The Red Queen (The Cousins War No.2) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2010

Originally published 1997

Margaret Beaufort is a girl born for great things. Denied political power despite her royal lineage, she takes refuge in piety and fantasises about a life of glory like that of Joan of Arc. Such dreams are tested when she’s married against her will at the age of twelve and sent to live far from everything she knows. Jasper Tudor is not a loving husband, nor is King Henry VI’s England a peaceful land. In a time when the authority of the crown is challenged like never before, Margaret has a chance to seize her dues – but she may have to sacrifice everything to get there.

Sequel to The White Queen, this book follows the journey of another female powerbroker during the Wars of the Roses, and a very different lady she is! There’s not much to like about Margaret, to be honest, but she’s written with such care and nuance that it’s easy to see how she became the person she did. She’s certainly fascinating to read about, as are the cast of people who surround her. I’m enjoying this series enormously. It continues with The Lady of the Rivers.

Review – Cat Among the Pigeons

Cat Among the Pigeons – Agatha Christie

(Note: The copy I read was part of a series called the Agatha Christie Collection and included neither publisher or publication date inside the book, which is deeply irritating to me.)

Originally published in 1959

Meadowbank is not a place where one expects to find scandal. An elite English boarding school for the daughters of the wealthy and powerful, its reputation is secure in the hands of the indomitable Miss Bulstrode – until the gym mistress is shot on the school grounds. Did Miss Springer die for her own secrets, or was she killed to protect someone else’s? As the investigation unfolds, one thing becomes clear. The murderer isn’t done yet.

At the end of last year I reviewed another Poirot novel but as there are so many, and I’m not actually reading them in order, I haven’t included the series number on either. I’ve always held that Agatha Christie’s characters are grown up, screwed up versions of Enid Blyton protagonists and never is this more obvious than in an actual boarding school. The casual racism is, as ever, depressingly eye-opening but the sexism is balanced out by some unexpectedly progressive elements. Poirot is a bit more than fashionably late, not showing up until more than two thirds of the way through the novel, like the kind of guest star who takes over an episode of someone else’s show. Basically, this is the usual Christie blend of comfortable joviality and cool cynicism. It’s weirdly addictive.

The Sharazad Project: Week 27

NSFW: sexual references

Night forty one begins with our kidnapped mystery girl climbing out of the chest that was to be her tomb and quickly assessing Ghanim’s house. Only once she’s evaluated his occupation, monetary status and physical appearance (in that order) does she settle in and ask for something to eat. Ghanim goes to the market personally to acquire a luxurious meal. The girl is in an excellent mood when he returns; there’s a lot of kissing and touching as they eat, even more when they start drinking. They spend the whole day together and fall asleep where they sit, unable to tear themselves away from each other.

The next day they breakfast together again. Ghanim makes it clear he wants to do a lot more than talk. The girl suggests he wait until she has drunk herself unconscious so she won’t be responsible for whatever happens next. She then starts stripping off a few layers of clothes, presumably to show what she wants to happen. He keeps pushing her for a kiss (while really meaning sex) and she keeps saying no in a coy, internalised-purity-complex kind of a way, and they both continue drinking and flirting all day long. During the evening Ghanim comes over to the girl, kissing her feet, rubbing his face on them and crying a bit in his drunken lust haze. She promises to tell him her story, but doesn’t – just kisses him some more.

Things continue in this fashion for a month. The pair share a bed but the girl insists sex is off the table, though she seems to want it. Eventually she shows Ghanim golden letters written on her underwear: ‘I am yours and you are mine, cousin of the Prophet’. Ew. The girl’s name is Qut al-Qulub. She is, as it turns out, a favourite concubine of the caliph. One day while he was away, the Lady Zubaida (remember her?) approached a slave in service to Qut al-Qulub – a slave who had once served the Lady Zubaida herself – and promised a rich reward if she drugged her new mistress. The slave agreed. Zubaida bribed three male slaves to take the unconscious concubine out of the palace, or so Qut al-Qulub presumes, because really she can’t be sure of any of this. She dares not go home, but cannot sleep with Ghanim for fear of the caliph’s wrath. They are both miserable about this.

Ghanim tries to renew his regular life, keeping to a separate bed, but Qut al-Qulub is sick of being the caliph’s pet when she loves someone else and abruptly suggests they should have sex anyway. It’s Ghanim’s turn to say no. For three months they exist in an awkward holding pattern of unresolved sexual tension.

Meanwhile, the Lady Zubaida is deciding what she’ll tell her husband when he gets back to find his favourite missing. Well, actually, she hires an old lady to figure it out for her. The murder consultant advises she have a corpse made of wood and bury it, plunging the palace into mourning. That way, all the palace staff can say that the Lady Zubaida treated the caliph’s favourite concubine with all due care and even if he has suspicions, he’ll find a body wrapped in beautiful grave clothes. It won’t be hard to convince him to avoid looking at the rotting body of a woman he loved. Zubaida thinks this is a fantastic idea; she pays her murder consultant and gets to work right away. When the caliph returns, he’s deeply shaken by the news of Qut al-Qulub’s ‘death’. He goes straight to the fake grave, which is surrounded by candles and lanterns as a gesture of respect. He has it opened up, as the old lady predicted, but she’s personally on hand to discourage him from having the grave clothes removed, implying it’s unholy. Instead he has the not-corpse replaced in the grave and camps out beside it for a month to mourn.

Night forty two shows him recovering enough to visit the harem, where he falls asleep. While he’s dozing there he hears a pair of slave girls gossiping. They know what happened to Qut al-Qulub, from the drugging to her rescue, and more interestingly, the Lady Zubaida knows that part too. By this point Qut al-Qulub has been with Ghanim for four months, ample time for Zubaida to continue her assassination scheme if she wanted. Presumably she thinks Qut al-Qulub’s absence is satisfactory enough. Of course, the caliph sees things rather differently. And it seems likely he’s that caliph, because guess who he calls on during his ensuing homicidal rage?


“Go down with a group of men,” he orders his long-suffering vizier, “find out where the house of Ghanim ibn Ayyub may be, break in and bring me my slave girl, Qut al-Qulub.” Ja’far and the caliph’s men surround Ghanim’s house and Qut al-Qulub panics. She tells Ghanim to flee; when he asks her how exactly he’s supposed to do that, she disguises him in rags and has him wander out between the soldiers, dismissed as a beggar. She has no such easy escape. When Ja’far enters the house, he finds her dressed to the nines in her loveliest clothes, awaiting him with full dignity. She tells him that Ghanim has left for Damascus and asks Ja’far to have a chest of gold and jewellery brought with her the palace. Because he’s sweet like that, he does it without question. His men are not so nice. They wreck Ghanim’s house.

The caliph orders that Qut al-Qulub be confined to a dark chamber with an old lady (hopefully not the murder consultant) as her only attendant, in punishment for having sex with Ghanim – since he won’t believe that she didn’t. He also writes to his officials in Damascus, commanding that Ghanim be arrested when he reaches Damascus. Worse, he has Ghanim’s house there plundered and his mother and sister arrested. When it becomes clear neither have any idea where Ghanim is, they are released, but they don’t really have anywhere to go.

Where is Ghanim, then? Penniless and heart-broken, he walks aimlessly and finally takes shelter in a mosque. The locals find him stretched out there, half-starved and covered in lice, and treat him kindly: they give him new clothes and a square meal, then, since he won’t answer their questions, leave him to get on with whatever he plans to do next. Which is precisely nothing. Over the ensuing month he falls sick and the genuinely lovely people of this town decide to take him into Baghdad for medical treatment. At this point two more beggars arrive, these being his mother and sister. He doesn’t recognise them. They don’t recognise him either, at first, but as he’s being lifted onto a camel for the journey they see a certain familiarity and travel with him to Baghdad.

The camel driver sets his passenger down outside the hospital door. True to recent form, Ghanim just sits where he’s left. The superintendent of the market sees him and apparently the hospital here is pretty dreadful, because he decides to rescue Ghanim from its dubious care and have him tended in his own household. The superintendent’s wife has him bathed and dressed in clean clothes, which serves to wake him up a little, but he will only sigh after lost love.

So what’s happening to his lost love? Next Tuesday, we’ll return to the palace and see how Qut al-Qulub is getting on. (Spoiler: it involves accusatory poetry).