With the PBS series “Indian Summers” now running, this month we’ll stay with the exotic and look at a genre of books that has proven perennially popular, both with romance readers (there seem to be new Sheik books out every month, contemporary or historical) and historical fiction fans—novels set in the mysterious and titillating world of the seraglio.
We begin the journey with a two-book series by Zia Wesley fictionalizing the life of a real woman, Aimée Dubucq de Rivery. Born on the island of Martinique, young Aimée and her cousin have their fortunes told by an old woman, who prophesies that both will become queens. The cousin becomes Josephine, Napoleon’s first Empress. In an even more unbelievable turn of events, Aimée becomes the favorite of a Sultan. In the first book, THE STOLEN GIRL (THE VEIL AND THE CROWN BOOK 1) we see Aimée’s early life, from her childhood in Martinque through the journey to Paris, where she attempts, without any luck, to marry into the Parisian elite. Resigned to spinsterhood, she decides to become a nun, but before entering the convent, takes ship to Martinique to visit her family one last time. On the voyage back, her ship is attacked by Barbary pirates. Aimée is captured and sold into slavery, ending up at the Grand Seraglio in the harem of the Sultan. This novel and its successor, THE FRENCH SULTANA (THE VEIL AND THE CROWN BOOK 2) offer vivid, well-researched details about life in Martinique, the French court in Paris, and the exotic world of the seraglio, where this naïve Westerner is first captive, then student of the arts of seduction at the Harem School, and finally favorite of the Sultan.
Traveling back to the 17th century, we have THE SECRET POWER OF THE HAREM by Chavdar Milhov. At the age of six, Mehmed IV becomes Sultan in an Ottoman Empire at the height of its reach and power. Inside this world dominated by tyrannical men, two women struggle to control the destiny of the empire: the young Sultan’s grandmother, Kösem Mahpeyker, who has ruled behind the scenes through the reigns of five sultans, and the boy’s beautiful young mother, Turhan Hatice, who becomes Queen Mother at the age of twenty. Hidden away in the seraglio, where hundreds of beautiful girls scheme and manipulate to gain ultimate power, the two battle for behind-the-throne control of the Sultan, his advisors and his policies, a battle which will leave only one victorious. Set against a vivid background of the Ottoman Empire, the novel provides an intriguing picture of a vanished world.
Not all the great seraglios of the world were in the Middle East. In THE SULTAN’S WIFE by Jane Johnson, also set in the 17th century, we switch locales from Turkey to Morocco. Fiery-tempered and cruel, Sultan Mulay Ismael controls the lives of everyone around him, while his wife Zidana uses her evil potions to try to eliminate as many of his offspring as possible who might compete for power with her own children. Into this world of intrigue and danger comes beautiful Dutch virgin Alys Swann, captured for the Sultan’s pleasure and turned over to Nus-Nus, the Sultan’s African eunuch scribe and keeper of the Royal Couching book. His instructions: convince her to convert to Islam, accept her destiny as wife to the Sultan, and give him sons—or both die. So begins an odd and enduring friendship, as Nus-Nus attempts to navigate his protégé (and the woman he comes to love) through the deadly waters of royal intrigue, a task that grows ever more dangerous when Alys gives birth to the sultan’s son. Filled with vivid descriptions of Morocco (author Johnson is actually married to a Berber) and the court of Charles II, where Nus-Nus later travels, this fictional account of these real historical characters has the sweep, authenticity and solid historical groundwork necessary for a compelling historical fiction read.
How much of these accounts of this hidden life are accurate, how much invented? For a look at the actual history behind the myth, we turn to HAREM: THE WORLD BEYOND THE VEIL by Alev Lytle Croutier. Born in a house that had once been the harem of a pasha, intrigued by tales about her grandmother and sister, who had both been brought up in a harem, author Croutier decided to look for the facts behind the legends. Using the Seraglio of the Topkapi Palace as prime example for the organization and workings of harems everywhere, Croutier takes us on a tour of harem life, from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century. Brimming with details, from descriptions of slave markets, to the training of odalesques, the opulent rooms of the favorites, the raising of royal children, to the famed and deadly rivalries in which hundreds of women scheme and intrigue to become a favorite and achieve the ultimate seat of power as valide sultana, mother of the Sultan, Croutier’s expose shows us the real society cloaked beneath the Western world’s erotic fantasy.
Ready to hear some tales of Scheherazade? Prepare to be transported to a unique and vanished world!
About Julia Justiss
Real, intense, passionate historical romance
After twelve years as a vagabond Navy wife, an adventure that took her from Virginia Beach, VA, to Monterrey, CA, to Tunis, Tunisia to Oslo, Norway and back, Julia Justiss followed her husband to his family’s East Texas homeland. On a hill above a pond with a view of pasture land, they built an English Georgian-style home. Sitting at her desk there, if she ignores the summer heat, she can almost imagine herself in Jane Austen’s Regency England.
In between teaching high school French and making jaunts to visit her three children (a Seabee in Gulfport, MS, a clothing buyer in Houston and a mechanical engineer in Austin, TX) she pursues her first love—writing historical fiction.
Leader of Hadley’s Hellions, a group of outsiders who bond together at Oxford vowing to reform Society, Giles Hadley wants nothing to do with the earl, his father who banished him, or his stepbrother George, who is the bane of his existence. But he’s curious about the woman rumor says George is to marry, daughter and political hostess of prominent Tory Lord Witlow.
For her part, Lady Maggie finds angry rebel Giles far more fascinating than George—so fascinating, that though she has no intention of risking her heart after losing her beloved husband, she might just be tempted into an affair…