“Once there was a city of women... both greater and less than you imagine...” and so it begins; this tale that draws you in, that wraps you in the warm arms of traditional storytelling in the flickering light of a fire...
This book plays on the idea of stories retold and changed on each telling, on whispered truth and secrets shared, on not knowing what is true and what is just the art of a tale spinner.
It gives you a number of different tales, but all woven together to be one story. Some are tales within a tale as a character tells a story to another character, some told in unusual way, via a recounting of recipes for example, some by an unknown narrator and some told directly to the reader by a character we come to love.
This novel asks you to believe that women are better than their stereotype and worse than their pedestal, that they are evil, good, pure, selfish, generous, tormented, that they can be so right and also wrong, that there are in fact human.
The founding of “Bessa the City of Women”, the titular City of Silk and Steel, is the myth that this tale claims to tell, how it came to be and how you might find it if you need to.
A group of concubines, women owned by men, given as gifts, sold as slaves, find themselves in a position to change their destiny, but self-determination in a world still ruled by men is not easy and they will need to find skills and a willingness to fight that they never knew they had.
The setting is fairly low fantasy, limited magic, geographically perhaps somewhere similar to Arabia with deserts, walled cities, Sultans and harems.
“Of course" she said "it's all just a fable. A tale of heathen folk and far off lands...”
Except somehow it's not. It's a tale of women who have only been valued for their looks, attractiveness, ability to serve... their worth as commodities asking themselves "how should I be valued?" "What am I worth if there is no man to tell me?" A question that still gets asked in our real world. The answers they find are light and funny, but also bitter and blood-soaked.
They find that just being women, even shared adversity, does not make them all perfect friends, but neither do they always fight amongst themselves for status. They do what they have to do and it's not perfect.
The novel looks at different roles of leadership and authority; the inherited authority of the old Sultan and his son, the political and religious authority of the new Sultan, the negotiated leader of the elder concubine, the class based entitlement of concubines over servants and the meritocracy of the fighters. In the different characters we see the pros and cons of each approach. The inherited and class based authority only exists while those lower in the pecking order believe in it. It is either supported without question or cast out entirely. The negotiated authority and the meritocracy have stronger foundations as systems, but individuals have to reprove or renegotiate their place more often.
This is the story of a city, if you assume that a city is more than buildings and walls, but the women and men that lived there and the ideals they lived by.
If you are interested in buying this book, it can be bought on Amazon via our affiliate link here, which pays us a small commission, but does not cost you any extra.
Review by Karen, first published in the BFS Journal.
If you have read this novel or others by any of its authors, let us know what you thought in the comments section below.