Author Bertrice Small’s obituary in the New York Times piqued my interest in her writing. I’m not sure if I read any of her books back when I read historical romance, but somewhere in a stack of books that a friend passed along to me is her Skye O’Malley. Quite honestly, it is on a shelf downstairs, with a lot of other books that I may never get around to reading. However, a brief look at Small’s book list led me to begin with her debut novel, a “harem” romance called The Kadin. I downloaded it from the Kindle store, and there are a few rough spots where the file didn’t translate too well, but over all, it was in good shape.
I was prepared to not like the novel. The reviews on Goodreads (something like 1900 plus) were mostly good, but there were any number of bad ones. Actually, the reasons for the bad reviews are some of the aspects that I liked best. Instead of being a slice of life, The Kadin is the whole life of Lady Janet Leslie; at least from the age of four, when her father legitimizes her, the offspring of an affair with a local peasant; until her death. Thus, it is far more than a romance. When our main character is a young teenager, her father is appointed ambassador to some obscure Middle Eastern nation and while there she is abducted and sold as a slave. Her purchaser is the chief eunuch of a harem, and young Janet, renamed Cyra, is groomed to be the young sultan’s favorite. For the most part, the eunuch’s plan goes well, but there is sufficient political intrigue between Cyra and her Selim, as well as Cyra and the other harem inhabitants that the plot never really drags, and the novel is some 400 plus pages.
Bertrice Small has the reputation of writing rather sexual romances, but The Kadin precedes that aspect of her writing. While her main character is very strong, she is swept away into the role of harem slave and never really protests that. Modern readers often bring modern mores into their analysis of fiction. Some of those one and two star reviewers seem to expect Janet/Cyra to rebel and somehow turn the sixteenth century into the twentieth at least, which amuses me. Others believe Small’s portrait of harem life, while quite fictional, has too many details. Who cares what they ate or wore? Well, actually, I care. Details help readers get into the story, and I really enjoyed getting into this novel. If it reminded me of anything, it has a lot in common with Angelique in Barbary, but that’s an even older story and is the best “harem slave” story I have ever read.
The Kadin is more than a romance and is almost diametrically opposed to modern chick lit. My time with it was a bit like watching great old movie that I had somehow missed seeing the first time around. I enjoyed it, and while it isn’t a great book, it is a really, really good one.