A mesmerising adventure full of wit, danger and incident. It is now 20 years since Scheherazade seduced the tyrannical King Shahriyar, since she spun her stories for 1001 nights, saving not only her own life but the lives of every other woman of her generation. She is a queen, beautiful, loved by all, a hero to all women and the real ruler of the kingdom. The year is AD 806, the year snow fell on Baghdad, and the year Scheherazade and Shahriyar make their first visit to the city. As does a monk, travelling from Sicily, clutching a scrap of an ancient prophecy about a storyteller. A monk destined to share a prison cell with an ill-assorted band of sailors, down on their luck and looking for work. Then from under the Caliph of Baghdad's nose, Scheherazade is kidnapped. And once again she must spin a story to save her life....
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Australian author Anthony O'Neill's ambitious debut novel received tremendous critical acclaim and its subject seemed intriguing. It promised much: an exotic local, intriguing history, eccentric characters, danger, adventure, and of course, stories within the story. I don't read much contemporary fiction, but I put it on "the list."
The tale begins in the year 806, "the year snow fell in Baghdad." The only surviving lines from the Sybilline prophecies burned on the Capitoline Hill in 83 B.C. promise trouble in the city. The prophecy begins: "When a cloud of ice embraces the place of peace, as in the west they feast, the fifth son in his remorse shall call forth the storyteller of the east..."
O'Neill's conception of Scheherazade is that of a woman of indomitable sexual allure, a Zoroastrian "who knows nothing of purdah." You'll need to get past that and suspend disbelief that a woman would walk naked (or be allowed to walk naked) through old Baghdad in order to proceed. She is pretty much the only female character, which I did not expect.
The men include the Caliph, the King (to whom the years have not been kind), ascetics, officials, and assorted extras. Of special focus is a band of brigands which includes a pair of former pearl divers and a camphor merchant, as well as my favorite, "Ishaq the Falcon-Eyed," who used to be in the inner court of the Caliph. Sadly, Kassim, the leader of the group, is one of the most loathesome, foul-mouthed characters I've come across in some time and we're treated to relentless observations, thoughts, and vulgarities from him.
O'Neill has a gift for bringing the sensations of his scenes vividly to life. He brings one right into his imaginary world. His sense of realism is strong, but his attempt at magical realism is far less successful.
Tremendous historical detail appears in nearly every paragraph. There are times that one feels he is trying to put in every detail from his research whether it adds to the progression of the story or not. The book could be at least a third shorter and not lose anything substantive.
The author handles multiple viewpoint narrative with an admirable skill in a debut novel.
The sex, sexual innuendo, sexual violence, and violence are absolutely relentless, at times gratuitous, stomach-churning, and even ridiculous. As I listened, I wondered if O'Neill would become a "man's writer," like Roth or Mailer, whom women might not necessarily "get."
Though O'Neill can undoubtely write well and tell a story, I don't know that I'd be interested in reading anything else from him. Perhaps you will like him better.