Once upon a time, in the city of Florence, there were three friends. The first, Agostino Vespucci, was fond of his home, unlike his cousin, Amerigo, who was possessed with wander-lust. The second, Antonino Argalia, was orphaned and ran away to become a pirate, eventually ending up as a general of Janissaries. The third boy also stayed at home, and was perhaps more interested in people than in places. His name was Niccolò Machiavelli.
Decades later, a young man arrives at the court of Akbar, Emperor of the World. He is blonde, clearly from one of the uncultured countries to the west that call themselves Christendom, and bears a letter from Elizabeth, queen of some place called England, yet he claims to be of Mughal descent. Charming the great king with his tales, he proceeds to tell the history of Qara Köz, the Hidden Princess. A descendant of Genghis Khan, sister to Babar, the founder of the Mughal Empire, wife to the Shah of Persia, and finally wife to the great Janissary commander, Argalia, she is naturally a woman of outstanding beauty. She is also a long-lost great aunt to Akbar, and young Niccolò Vespucci claims her for his mother.
This story forms the backbone of Sir Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. It is, in some ways, the sort of thing that Dorothy Dunnett might have produced; though trying to convince the emperor of India that you are his long-lost uncle might have taxed even the dissembling abilities of Francis Lymond. There are critical differences, which I will come to later, but first let us look at the book in its own right.
It goes without saying that Rushdie can write. He has just been declared the winner of the Best of the Booker poll, making him the best writer of his generation in the eyes of British readers. While I might disagree with that particular judgment, I certainly can’t complain about the quality of Rushdie’s prose. The book is a delight to read, and will doubtless sell very well. For this review, however, I’m not going to address its suitability for the mainstream market, which Rushdie has already conquered with ease. Rather I want to examine whether the book, which includes a fair amount of magic, will appeal to fantasy readers.
Please note that this is not the same as asking “is the book a fantasy”. There are far too many conflicting definitions of fantasy fiction already, and I have no great desire to add to the debate. In particular I want to avoid the distinction between “fantasy” and “magic realism”. There is a commonly expressed argument that a book which is set in times past and which deals with people who believe in magic cannot be “fantasy” because in the time in which it is set “magic” was deemed to be “real”. I object to this on several grounds.
Firstly it is arrogant. It takes the position that the stupid primitives of ancient times (or in some cases of Third World countries) always believe that “magic” is true whereas we Westerners are more educated and sensible. Any routine survey of American belief in UFOs, angels, healing crystals and the like will show how silly that is. Secondly it is impossible to prove. Short of inventing time travel, we will never know whether Shakespeare really believed in Oberon and Titania, or Macbeth’s witches. And finally it leads to absurd conclusions. Homer’s writings, for example, would be held not to be fantasy, because the ancient Greeks believed in their gods; but if I were to write a book that was word for word identical to the Iliad it would be fantasy because I’m supposed to know better. That’s silly. A reader should not have to know the history of the author in order to know whether a book is fantasy or not.
So what does a fantasy reader look for in a book? Obviously not all readers are the same, but one thing they may want is an exotic medieval setting. For most Westerners, the court of a Mughal emperor is most definitely exotic, and Akbar was the most exotic of all Mughals.
The emperor Abul-Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning ‘the great’, and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory…
As for Florence, who could want for a more tempting setting than the city of the devious and grasping Medici? This is a good start.
On the downside, fantasy readers are often women, and many of them like to read books in which characters of their gender are not quite as downtrodden as they were in the real Middle Ages. Rushdie makes few allowances. His book contains many preternaturally beautiful women, a few old hags, a couple of comedy whores and Machiavelli’s much maligned, much cheated on, matronly and jealous wife, Marietta. None of them are exactly role models. Akbar, for all his philosophical bent, is under no illusions about the position of women in society. This comment comes as he is showing Niccolò his harem, and the great great one is a little drunk.
“A woman should know how to play music on glasses filled to different heights with liquids of various sorts,” said the emperor, slurring his words. “She should be able to fix stained glass into a floor. She should know how to make, trim and hang a picture; how to fashion a necklace, a rosary, a garland or a wreath; and how to store or gather water in an aqueduct or tank. She should know about scents. And about ornaments for the ear. And she should be able to act, and to lay on theatrical shows, and she should be quick and sure in her hands, and be able to cook and make lemonade or sherbet, and wear jewels, and bind a man’s turban. And she should, of course, know magic. A woman who knows these few things is almost the equal of any ignorant brute of a man.”
Of course one should never make the mistake of assuming that a character speaks for the author, and in other places Rushdie shows he is aware of the dangers women, even rich and beautiful women, faced in those times.
But the distance between enchantress and witch was still not so great. There were still voices that suggested that this new incarnation of the Woman-wizard through whom the occult powers of all women were unleashed was a disguise, and that the true faces of such females were still the fearsome ones of old, the lamia, the crone.
Qara Köz might have a life of luxury, but her life is also fraught with danger, both from princes, and from the mob. It seems likely that in writing the book Rushdie was bearing in mind a much more recent tale of a princess who appeared to capture the hearts of the common people, and whose story fascinates them still.
Naturally your fantasy reader will want a touch of magic, and of that there is plenty, though Rushdie is careful enough to present it in such a way that only the most genre-phobic of literary critics will be unable to mollify his fears with the argument that the fantastic happens only in the minds of the characters, not in reality. Niccolò Vespucci is a self-confessed conjurer who uses sleight of hand to impress the gullible. As for Qara Köz, the spells she weaves over the hearts and minds of her menfolk, and of the people of Florence, may indeed be purely psychological, and the sad end of one of the Medici simply coincidence. The existence of Jodha, Akbar’s imaginary queen, is rather harder to explain away. It could well be that this is a case of the emperor’s new wife, and that once Akbar had declared her to exist no one dared say otherwise. Yet the book includes passages in which Jodha speaks to other characters, which tends to argue for her reality.
A fantasy reader may also appreciate an author with a sense of humor, and Rushdie may be literary but he is far from po-faced. During his time with the Sultan, Argalia acquires a bodyguard of four albino Swiss Janissaries. They are called Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan, for no other reason than it amused the author to name them so. Rushdie is also not above the occasional dig at his personal enemies. While the many Muslim characters in the book are mostly portrayed favorably, the one fundamentalist cleric at Akbar’s court is a bad sort who meets a nasty end.
What the book lacks, and a fantasy reader may find wanting, is intensity. Much of the narrative is in the form of story: either Niccolò relating events in Florence to Akbar, or the narrator relating what happens in Akbar’s court as the emperor comes to hear of it. There are very few scenes in which the reader is plunged into the center of the action, and consequently little of the emotional intensity that you might expect from, say, a Dorothy Dunnett book. It reads much more like Cat Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, which has a similar tale-telling format.
On the other hand, there is history aplenty, and one thing that I can pretty much guarantee is that your average geek, on finishing the book, will rush to the Internet to try to find out just how much of this story is real, and how much Rushdie made up. There is an impressive list of historical sources covering six pages at the back of the book. It is all so plausible. Well, apart from the one obvious flaw in Niccolò’s story, which really would require his mother to know magic. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you which characters I know are real people.
If the above appeals to you, all well and good. I certainly enjoyed the book, and while I can see how more focus on the characters could have deepened the reading experience and created a more traditionally fantasy-sized tome, I for one am happy that Rushdie let me get away with a mere 350 pages. The Enchantress of Florence is a very entertaining book, and I doubt that I’ll read many better fantasies this year.