Earlier this year, the Carey gang – Mike Carey, wife Linda and daughter Louise – saw the UK publication of City of Silk and Steel by Gollancz, a wonderful Arabian Nights-style novel I discovered quite by chance recently in Lancaster Library.
Mike will be better known to downthetubes readers as a comics writer, best known for his work on the multiple Eisner-nominated series Lucifer and for a critically-acclaimed run on US comics publisher Vertigo’s flagship title, Hellblazer. His other credits include The Unwritten for DC Vertigo. (He’s also written X-Men, X-Men Legacy and Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics).
But he’s also a terrific novelist best known for his Felix Castor novels; and as a screenwriter – his screenplay Silent War, written for Slingshot and Intrepid Pictures, is about to go into production.
City of Silk and Steel (published as The Steel Seraglio by its initial Canadian publisher, ChiZine) opens in a city known as Bessa, where a sultan named Bokhari Al-Bokhari is thrown down by the zealots of the ascetic Hakkim Mehdad. The sultan, his wives and children are put to the sword, while his 365 concubines are sent to a neighbouring caliph as tribute, Hakkim having no use for the pleasures of the flesh.
But a day after the caravan had departed from Bessa, Hakkim discovered the terrible secret that the concubines had hidden from him. His reaction was swift and cruel.
Kill the women of the harem forthwith, along with their children and maidservants. Let not one survive. Their bodies let the desert claim, and their names be fed to silence.
This, then, is the tale – or tales – of how a remarkable group of women fight together to survive both the fury of Hakkim and the rigours of the desert. How a rabble of concubines, children, camel-herds and thieves is forged into an army of silk and steel. It is the tale of the redemption and rise of Bessa, fabled City of Women. And it is the tale of an act of kindness that carries the seed of death, and will return to bring darkness and the end of a dream…
The novel is a terrific read, with the kind of great characters you’d expect, mixed into a glorious myth, a story backed by meticulous research into fourth century Arabia tinged with few liberties to spark up the story but not too many to lose it credibility. You genuinely feel for the characters such as he assassin, Zuleika, whose hands are weapons, the seer, Rem, whose tears are ink., and the camel-thief, Anwar Das, who offers his lying tongue to the concubines’ cause, as they battle against the odds for survival.
“The City of Silk and Steel is a unique creative project for me,” says Mike over on GoodReads of the project. “… I’d previously co-written with Louise – a YA graphic novel called Confessions Of a Blabbermouth – but never with Lin (who writes fantasy as A.J.Lake).
“For a long time, the idea of the three of us working together on a novel was just a pleasant pipe dream. Then one day, when we weren’t taking due care and attention, we pitched it (to Canadian publishers ChiZine) and got the book commissioned. Which meant we had to write it.
“What we wanted to create was both a homage to The Thousand and One Nights and a riposte to it,” Mike explains. “We love the original, which has to stand as one of the greatest works of fiction ever created – and of course it was created by committee, so our three-headed approach seemed appropriate. But at the same time, we wanted to redress some of the scary misogyny that’s sometimes on display both in the core story of Shahryar and Scheherazade and in many of the inset tales.
“So we wrote our own novel – like the original, with lots of smaller stories inset – but put the narrative focus squarely on the (mostly) female protagonists and on their attempt to take control of their own destinies in a fantastic, feudal Middle East.”
“I think perhaps my comic book work – especially the writing I’ve done on Lucifer and on The Unwritten – was a structural influence,” Mike told Starburst magazine of creating the story earlier this year. “I got used to writing those books in arcs of three to five issues which corresponded to chapters in an ongoing story. And I used done-in-one pieces as buffers and pauses for thought between the longer arcs. That’s a model that brings a lot of built-in advantages when you’re telling a long form story in episodic form. But it works just as well – in a different way – when you’re writing a novel.”
If you’re a fan of the Game of Thrones novels then this is definitely a book to try. The Careys have hinted, also, they they would love to revisit the universe they’ve created in City of Silk and Steel, and they’ve certainly left enough openings to do so.
“We’re all pretty much agreed that it would make a great comic book and a great movie,” the team told GavReads back in March. “We’d love to explore either of those options.”
• Here’s a video trailer for the book…