Shadiya is a prized courtesan of the Silver Rose, one of dozens of elegant Sisters who serve the men–though never the women–of the land of Anderholm. Fiercer-tempered than any of her compatriots, Shadiya makes what would be reckoned by many in her position as a mistake; rather than allowing herself to be raped, she kills the nobleman who comes to assault her, catapulting the house of the Silver Rose into politics from which it had long been carefully kept safe. The resulting narrative is full of interwoven designs and intrigues, with Shadiya unwillingly at the center of attention for forces that are more than her match in terms of knowledge and strength. Ancient scholars, abandoned quasi-gods, mortal treachery and plain old misogyny all conspire to throw her off balance–but she’s no layabout, and she’s not afraid to make choices boldly. I appreciated how even though she was not the one with power, other than the power of persuasion and an extreme physical coordination, still she was no shrinking violet. Juggling her need to survive, her longing for her secret and forbidden female lover, and her hopes for the future of her courtesan sisterhood, she must navigate the desires and heavy-handed jealousies of men.
Shadiya goes from one difficult situation to the next, always doing her best to survive it, but increasingly endangered. She takes as lover a fellow courtesan, and the relationship between them is easy and believable, down to the little arguments that they get into now and again. Every choice she makes tangles her further in the web of problems, and it becomes difficult to see how she could possibly escape.
I went into this book trying to keep an open mind. Ever since Kushiel’s Dart was published fifteen years or so ago, there have been more and more fantasy novels with sharp-witted courtesans as their main characters, to the point that tropes of the genre are starting to define themselves, but the subgenre can be a lot of fun in the right hands.. So by the time I was fifty pages or so in, I thought I had this one pegged. Clever, preternaturally physically skilled medieval-European-style courtesan attracts the attention of rich, powerful man, must fight off the jealousy of older women to net him, becomes something greater (and no longer a sex worker: a one-dimensional fantasy novel baseline much like “pauper” or “orphan thief,” something to extricate oneself from), only this time, With Lesbians!
And then, defying my expectations, just when the tension and malice from all sides seemed to be at its peak, the book transformed into an old-fashioned dungeon romp, complete with pitfalls and random-encounter-style monsters. I was delighted. No longer having to worry about angry machinations from the book’s female antagonist, I found that I was really enjoying the read. The interplay between the characters was quick and believable, and while there wasn’t exactly anything groundbreaking in that section of the book it was still snappy and well-paced. It was the sort of thing you might see in a really good D&D session, familiar but warming in its familiarity. I liked the various uses of magic and illusion, I was hopeful that this was going to continue to be like a classic adventure fantasy (only this time, with queer girls!) and I caught myself thinking that I’d definitely be picking up the sequel, if things continued this way.
And then in another hard turn, the book became ultra-violent within the last short handful of pages, and any joy I had in the narrative was extinguished like a candle. I mentally crossed off pretty much every single female friend I’d been about to recommend the novel to, though I might still recommend it to a male friend or two, with warnings.
This book honestly feels like two disparate novels. There’s the palace intrigue, with violence and stolen gifts and hidden swords and razor smiles, and there’s the bouncy dungeon crawl. Taken separately, I might have been able to enjoy either of them for what it was; the misogynistic world where women are abused without recourse, but where Shadiya could somehow rise above her situation and change things, or the quick-paced but character driven role-playing game novel. But the jarring tone changes from one aspect of the book to the other made it so that when the casual brutality arrived, it was so shocking that it left a terrible taste in my brain. The book ends on a cliffhanger, more or less immediately after this new violence.
Things I really liked: the sex scenes are pretty good, whether f/f or f/m. They’re plentiful, for what that’s worth, but they’re also not the ponderous sort frequently common to would-be literary fantasy; like the dungeon scenes, they’re just fun. I liked that the female characters, of which there are several, are different personalities from each other, with all the ways that they can mesh or grate against one another. I liked that there is clearly no shortage of history and backstory behind the narrative, and the world was so layered that I’m sure I’d love to sit in a pub with the author and listen to her expound on the Things That Were, a few centuries back in the timeline.
Things that I didn’t like: This is definitely a nitpick, but the naming conventions are a bit distracting. There are names like Deresi and Shadiya, which sound sufficiently fantastic, and then there are names like Aaron and Benjamin. The names which stood out as easily recognizable were Jewish names, and I couldn’t decide if that meant the author was exoticizing the Jewish mythological tradition. Shadiya might be an Arabic name, but the setting is decidedly European. And then there are the names that seem to come from words I’d know, like Sybaris for the captain of the guard for the Silver Rose, and Mienhard, a cruel-faced male antagonist who shows up in the beginning to assault the protagonist.
More damningly, I didn’t approve of the way that the female antagonist, herself merely a pawn to masculine anger and manipulation, was so afraid of aging rather than enjoying the power that can be found in experience. I thought it was a bit unrealistic that she was no longer able to wrap men around her little finger, as there are always going to be young cockerels who want to be taught the ways of the world by a mature woman. And then, finally, I loathed the brutal and frankly gratuitous offscreen gang rape, torture, and probable murder of a childlike character who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a scene horrifically out of place for the tone of the rest of the novel.
Final rating: Two of five stars. Would have been four without the rape.