The Prince of Earth by Mike Robinson is taking longer to finish than I expected (it would help if I actually read on a consistent basis) so this week I'll be dusting off an old review of "The Fourth Queen" by Debbie Taylor. This was probably my first real adventure in Historical Fiction and it remains one of my favourite stories.
Inspired by true stories of 18th-century kidnappings, debut novelist Taylor produces an imaginative and bawdy romp through the harem of the emperor of Morocco. Young Helen Gloag, bound from Scotland to the colonies in 1769, is captured by pirates and brought to the slave markets of Tangiers. There, she is purchased for the emperor's harem by the dwarf Microphilus, who procures and manages the hundreds of women selected as royal chattel. Instantly smitten with Helen's pale skin and red hair, Microphilus conceals his passion for her as she learns to make her way in the languorous-and competitive-world of the harem. Initially at a loss in terms of language and culture, she is dismissed by the emperor; under the tutelage of Queen Batoom (the first of the emperor's four wives), she eventually charms him and is soon his favorite. But with favoritism comes danger: one of the other queens has succumbed to a mysterious wasting illness, and when Helen is chosen as the emperor's fourth wife, it appears that she is also doomed. Instrumental in unraveling the mystery is Microphilus, who-having long been Queen Batoom's
secret lover-eventually becomes close to Helen as well, as
the two take comfort in remembering their shared homeland. Alternating between
third-person sections from Helen's perspective and entries in Microphilus's
diary, Taylor conjures up the shimmering exoticism of the emperor's court. Most
notable is the concentration on fleshy exuberance (the emperor's women must be
fat, and nearly all of them, including Helen, become giddy with sex in their
forced idleness). Amid all the rolling rumps and alliterative saucy sex talk,
Taylor manages to tell a highly unusual and satisfying love story.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The plot was engaging, it was well researched and there was not a single dull character I could find. I do admit that the ending was very disappointing - as though there was at least a chapter missing. I disliked the amount of questions I was left asking as I closed the book and I was almost left waiting for there to be a sequel of sorts.
From the very beginning you see just how naïve - and beautiful - Helen is, running away from home to avoid humiliation only to find herself whoring herself out for food on a ship to the colonies. Taylor's ability to create vivid imagery in just the first chapter was enough to make me gag...from the imagery. She manages to create a world full of life and pulls the reader in violently with sharp images and period lingo, simultaneously telling a tale of horror, of love and betrayal and of survival.
Coming from Scotland, Helen is suddenly thrust into a world where everything she knew of beauty was considered ugly. No more skinny curves and innocent virginity, she must be full-figured - fat - and know how to please a man if she ever hopes to catch the eye of the emperor and escape the vicious world of the harem.
Much of life in the harem is consumed by this plump, hairy, dark definition of beauty, none more consumed than the ugliest character of Microphilus, a deformed midget and the keeper of the beauties of Morocco. Taylor introduces this character in the first person form giving the reader an inside view of this new world - and more importantly - the brilliant mind and great love of a man that it seems no one can love (but the queens) for the sheer disgusting body the man possesses.
This world of beauty and sex is set in such a desolate, crude world that it is often too much to swallow but Debbie Taylor has managed to tell an engaging story filled with great imagery and heart pounding drama from beginning to end and I recommend this book to anyone looking for a great historical read.