The Princes of the Golden Cage, by newcomer Nathalie Mallet, is a book that shouldn't work but does. It succeeds in spite of itself. Mallet's prose, while showcasing some truly impressive research into Middle Eastern culture circa the 1300s, is amateur at best, filled with the redundant phrasing of a writer just starting to develop her own style. ("It was an awful feeling," her narrator says , "an ominous one.") The speculative elements of the tale, involving the summoning of ifrits (called "eefrets" here) and djinn to assassinate members of a royal bloodline, feel pasted on, and the overly complex plot gets wearisome just when it should be most compelling. Yet for all that, this tale of princes locked in a "Golden Cage" is written with heart and humor and, much like a Turkish bazaar, contains enough curiosities to keep one browsing well past curfew.
The phrase "Golden Cage" refers to a well-documented feature of a Sultan's palace: namely, a section of living quarters, removed from the rest of the court, where all legitimate male heirs were sequestered during their father's rule. Think of it as Solitary Confinement for the Rich and Famous. Much like the Sultan's wives and favorites, who resided in the harem, princes of the Golden Cage lived in seclusion for most, if not all, of their lives, receiving the attentions of servants but seeing little of their father or the outside world. The purpose of thus containing the princes was to keep tabs on them, and even to encourage the power plays that inevitably followed as the young men began to squabble over their rights to the throne. As Mallet accurately notes, a tally of the princes was kept, with the names of those who died of sickness or political assassination removed and the remainder reshuffled on a regular basis to reflect who stood highest in the line of succession.
Prince Amir, the novel's protagonist, wants no part of this tradition. More scholarly than political, he keeps to his tower, studying ancient lore and language. It is only when something other than political intrigue begins to pick off his 117 brothers by apparently magical means that he is thrust into the center of cage life. His knowledge of the occult makes him an asset to the palace officials who are trying to solve the murders, but a suspect to his other brothers, who think him a "yatus," or black magician, who has used those suspicious books of his to practice evil spells. Ironically, Amir has never believed in magic. He feels that the murders, despite a certain ghostly residue that lingers over the victims' bodies, must be the result of a clever poisoner.
As a result of the murders, a brother Amir has never met before, blond, Nordic Prince Erik, appears, enlists Amir's help in solving the crimes ("I believe we're all marked for death," he explains ), and shows him a system of secret tunnels winding through the walls of the palace. Soon Amir and Erik are fighting duels with their suspicious brothers and exploring a subterranean underworld that isn't as secret as they think. Who is murdering the princes? Is it the Sultan, who appears younger every time a princely life is snuffed? Is it the shadowy Grand Vizier, who seems to sneak about the hidden tunnels quite a bit? Or is it Erik and his mysterious serving boy, Rami? Whoever it is, they seem to be working with a series of demonic entities.
Contrary to what one might think, the speculative element of the novel, drawn from Arabic mythology and (no doubt) Sir Richard Burton's 1001 Arabian Nights, is the least interesting aspect of the whole endeavor. This is largely because Mallet, like many a beginning fantasist, hasn't yet discovered how to make her magical elements a working part of her plot. Amir, who spends the first part of the novel refusing to believe the murders are magically induced, is the first to realize that a bevy of supernatural women who accost him and Erik beneath the palace are in fact pairikas, female demons who seduce men to their deaths. The problem with this is that Amir doesn't believe in such creatures—so why the ready acceptance and instant recognition? He even realizes that he has been enspelled by a charm, after which he never questions the existence of magic again. That Mallet wastes this opportunity to explore Amir's evolution betrays her as a neophyte, and the way she inserts the pairikas into the text without preparing her audience for them (by, say, having her characters discuss the possibility of actual demons roaming the palace) makes them more of a device than a believable menace. Likewise, the significance inherent in the timing of the attacks, which always happen on the full moon, is never explained, leaving readers to insert their own preconceived notions about black magic and its reliance on lunar cycles. Why do the attacks follow the progression of the moon? Because that's how it always happens in these tales.
These disconnects in plot logic are disappointing because one senses Mallet's obvious delight in writing about mythological entities. However, she's so busy having her protagonist deny their very existence for so long that she never sets up the requisite system of magic needed to define the parameters of her speculative world. With a little more attention paid to the techniques of the pros, she would know that all successful fantasy novels operate under a concrete set of rules the author has developed at length before ever beginning to write. Robert Jordan knew all the workings of the One Power and began parceling out information about it on the very first page of The Eye of the World. J. K. Rowling knows everything about the struggle between Harry Potter's wizarding world and the parallel realm of the Muggles and opens her first novel by commenting on the divide. Mallet, however, wades through an entire chapter before magic is mentioned, then has Amir dismiss it offhand. As a result, the audience expects that this will be a story about disproving magic, rather than one that relies on magic to fuel its plot.
As the story winds on, more inexplicable beasties jump out of corners and the Sultan starts to look as young as any of his sons, but nothing comes of any of it. The political plot—which involves the complicated royal lineage and the fate of Eva, the beautiful princess Amir falls in love with—is clearly more important to Mallet than who the hell is conjuring up demons to kill everyone and why. One wonders why she didn't stick to straight-up historical fiction, a genre at which, given her informed description of palace life, she would surely excel.
Mallet has picked a fascinating setting and shows a knack for inserting cultural details without overbalancing the action. Having recently read Alev Lytle Croutier's Harem: The World Behind the Veil, I recognized much of the information—the royal obsession with tulips, the penchant for assassination via interesting poisons, and the accurate descriptions of harem life, for starters—but Mallet is also true to the literary traditions of the ancient East. Readers of the Arabian Nights will smile at the way she incorporates the old tales into Amir's investigative research. And while the rather simplistic prose sometimes seems intended for a YA audience, Mallet is refreshingly candid about the racier aspects of the culture, as enthusiastically citing the sexual practices and bloodier rites of passage as describing the velvet divans and silver belts.
One can go cross-eyed trying to figure out which harem girl begat which prince with which Sultan and how it relates to the sporadic appearance of ghostly demons. But in the end, what one really cares about are Mallet's brash young protagonists. Amir is realistically drawn: a prince humane enough to carry food to his two handicapped brothers, Mir and Jafer, but cocky enough to mock Erik's fashion sense. Whether gloating over his ability to understand Yalec or dealing out justice in a duel, Amir is always fun to watch. Erik, Rami, and the lovely princess Eva are also pleasant company, as is the cliché but entertaining supporting cast of tragic slave girls, evil viziers, and domineering Sultanas. The dialogue is sometimes anachronistic ("Anyway, the thing with pairikas is . . . ," one ill-fated sentence begins ) and often states the obvious (watching Eva wring her hands after she receives a bit of bad news, Amir notes, "Something was bothering her" ), but Mallet never loses sight of the core of the tale: the younger generation struggling to survive the cage of their forefather's corruption. One looks forward to the day when her execution of fantastic elements matches her skill in creating vivid historical landscapes and likable characters.
Hannah Strom-Martin currently lives and writes in California. Her pop culture writing appears regularly in the North Bay Bohemian. Her latest short story will soon appear in On Spec. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop.