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I was entranced recently by "Emissary", the second in Fiona McIntosh's "Percheron" trilogy and was eager to read the first to find out what I'd missed. Starting with the second book in a trilogy is often a risk as you miss out on things, but in this case, I think that reading them backwards has taken some of the excitement out of this instalment.
Zar Joreb has just passed away and his son, Zar Boaz has been elevated to the throne. His mother, now Valide Herezah and the Chief Eunuch of the harem see this as their opportunity to have a greater say in the running of Percheron, as Boaz is only fifteen and so likely to be unsure of himself.
To flex her muscles, the Valide sends the head of security, Spur Lazar, out to help populate the new Zar's harem. He returns with a young girl called Ana, who is headstrong enough to cause the Valide and the Chief Eunuch some trouble, which will result in serious punishment for others later on. Combined with the actions of Pez and a strangely different Vizier, the Valide and the Eunuch find they are not the only ones determined to win the power struggle inside the Zar's palace.
This struggle may not turn out to be the most important factor, however. There are portents suggesting that the next round in the war between the Gods may not be too far into the future and it appears that the biggest part may not be played by those who want it most.
Although I was already aware of some of the things that would happen in this book, knowing the later status of some of the characters better than I knew their status at the time of these events, I still found "Odalisque" to be a wonderful introduction to Percherese society. It's almost like a dark soap opera in many ways, with characters all manoeuvring for position and those who don't quite get it right often ending up being put to death in rather nasty ways.
As in "Emissary", it is this jostling for position that provides the greatest intrigue and entertainment. McIntosh writes her characters so well that you can almost feel their hatred for each other and it is so easy to take sides and want to cheer when events work out for your favourites and or hiss and boo when the bad guys win. Each character has their own distinct personality and there is never any danger that you will get any of them confused with each other or lose track of events, as has happened with other character driven fantasy books I've read. McIntosh gets you so involved in their lives that it becomes a similar feeling to watching a pantomime, as you can really care about what's going to happen.
There is plenty of opportunity to get involved as well, as there is barely a moment goes past where someone isn't trying to undermine someone else. Even the dwarf, Pez, who as the court jester is there for a little comic relief has a calculating side and is not immune from being involved in the politics. You cannot afford to lose concentration for a moment, for fear that the story may move on without you and you'll get left behind in the swirl of events. In this regard, the reader is equal to the characters, as they have the same fears.
The one thing that makes "Odalisque" slightly less enthralling than "Emissary" is that there isn't quite so much going on. Whereas the latter was like a chess game with pieces being moved around all over the place, this felt more like the early moves, with everyone trying to judge the strength of their opponents before making any bold moves. The secondary plot about the battle between the gods didn't really get moving terribly far, either, but it may have been my knowledge of what is to come that made me feel a little let down by that part of the story.
Once more, however, Fiona McIntosh has given us a wonderful work of character driven fantasy. I didn't enjoy this as much as her other work, but I suspect that I would have enjoyed it far more had I not read the two books in the wrong order. I think that my reservations were all down to knowing in advance some of what was going to happen and so I was less able to be caught up in events than I would otherwise have been and as I was with her other work.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Fiona McIntosh to fans of Kate Elliott and Karen Miller and the darker side of Percherese society makes me suspect that fans of Celia Friedman's darker fantasy novels may find something to like here as well. As someone who is already a fan of McIntosh, I can confirm that existing fans of her work will not be let down in the slightest, either.
This is one of those rare books which I wouldn't object to paying the full price for, and the same is true of the others in the trilogy. Even from £5.99 from Amazon and Play, this is one not to be missed by any fantasy fan, but when you consider that copies have been seen on eBay from £1.49 and in the Amazon Marketplace from 34 pence, this makes it even more indispensible, especially if you're buying them to read in the correct order, when you'll get the complete benefit of how good this is.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk