Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher

Shadow Spinner book cover
Rating 7.7/10
Its lucky Shahrazad had a friend like you

Like most people, I probably heard of Shahrazad’s tales long before being aware of the lady herself, since I doubt many children’s retellings of Alibaba and the forty thieves, Sinbad the sailor or Aladdin happened to mention that they were being narrated by the wife to a psychotic sultan who would murder her if the story wasn’t interesting enough; and she couldn’t even recruit Robin Williams to bolster audience appreciation. Susan Fletcher is not the first writer since Richard Burton to show Shahrazad as a real person rather than a framing device for other stories, but her take on the ancient Persian legend is certainly a unique one.

As in the original thousand and one nights, The Sultan; finding out his first wife was unfaithful to him decides all women are betrayers and so begins the practice of marrying a new wife each day then having her executed the next morning. When the situation spirals into chaos, with threats of revolt from fathers and brothers of the Sultan’s prospective spouses, and the outlaw Abu Muslim helping smuggle unmarried young women out of the city, the Vizier’s daughter, Shahrazad offers to marry the Sultan herself. On their wedding night, she asks if she can tell a story to her sister Dunyazad. When the story ends on a cliff hanger, the Sultan is forced to give Shahrazad a stay of execution in order to see how the story comes out.

Susan Fletcher picks the story up two and a half years; or 988 nights, later. The disabled slave girl Marjan; herself a talented story teller greatly admires Shahrazad’s ability to tell stories which has saved young women all over the city from the blood thirsty Sultan. On a trip to the Sultan’s harem to sell jewels with her Aunt Chava, Dunyazad overhears Marjan telling a story to the harem children, a story which neither she, nor her sister Shahrazad have ever heard before. With Shahrazad suffering a severe writer’s block and the Sultan’s mother, the murderous Khatun waiting for any reason to destroy her, Dunyazad sees Marjan as her sister’s salvation. Thus begins Marjan’s own story, a dark and secretive adventure of harem intrigue and the power of storytelling, where the threat of death is never far away.

Whatever issues I might have had with Susan Fletcher’s style previously, I certainly don’t have anything to complain about in Shadow Spinner, everything from the sights, sounds and smells of the nearly abandoned palace corridors to the bustling bazaar is picked out in bright and colourful detail with a real sense of place.

I do not know enough about ancient Persian culture to say whether Fletcher’s descriptions are historically accurate, but certainly they feel very real, which makes the faerie tale world of the Arabian nights all the closer.

With character too, I applaud Fletcher’s realism, since very few people here are one note affairs. Shahrazad might be Marjan’s hero, but she’s also the woman that quite literally buys Marjan to have her story telling skills at hand in the harem, forcing Marjan to leave the Jewish aunt and uncle who’ve been her surrogate parents ever since her mother abandoned her. Indeed the continual disparity between what Shahrazad, as an undoubtedly wealthy woman who’s grown up in seclusion believes about the outside world and what Marjan herself knows provide some very interesting contrasts.

Similarly, Fletcher is careful to keep the Sultan an unseen threat for most of the story, a hidden power whose displeasure hovers around the edges of the world of the harem and the women who live there. Far more an overt threat is the Sultan’s mother; the Khatun, an absolutely detestable villain depicted with unreserved nastiness.

One problem I did have with the book is the way the progression of the plot is dealt with. A large proportion of the plot revolves around Marjan’s search for a particular story teller and a particular story. While on the one hand, the continual efforts to placate the Sultan and the knots Shahrazad gets into (especially when we experience them all at second hand through Marjan’s perspective), are nicely tense, with Marjan having to wait each morning to see if Shahrazad leaves the Sultan’s bed chamber alive or not. At the same time however, the actual action got slightly repetitive.

While it is more than logical that in a society where women are held in seclusion Marjan would need several ways of sneaking out of the palace harem, at the same time, the fact that all of these efforts involved Marjan hiding in various pieces of furniture and being carried out made matters feel a little repetitive, especially in such a comparatively short six hour book as Shadow Spinner.

These continual smugglings also were a trifle confusing with regards to how much power Shahrazad actually had, because while on the one hand inside the harem it was always made obvious that the Khatun’s will was law and efforts were continually being made to avoid her possible spies, at the same time, Shahrazad seemed to have little difficulty arranging a succession of friendly trades people to help Marjan in her sneaking, despite the disparity between Marjan and Shahrazad’s respective experience of the outside world, indeed I did find myself wondering exactly how Shahrazad, as a woman who didn’t realize that carrying around large gold coins would make someone a target for thieves in the bazaar, would at the same time manage to orchestrate an entire network including harem eunuchs, furniture makers, carpet sellers and so on, all apparently without the Khatun’s knowledge.

These continual escapes also provided a minor problem for Fletcher’s narrative. While everything is told in a wonderfully clear first person which puts us as immediately in touch with Marjan’s feelings as the rich descriptions put us in touch with her surroundings, at the same time there are only so many times even such a gifted story teller as Marjan (or Susan Fletcher), can make the experience of curling up in a small dark space and being carried around interesting.

That being said, Marjan’s other experiences, from very practical difficulties she has walking or wearing shoes with her malformed foot, to the experiences of a woman wearing a vale (or feeling naked without one), are picked out in wonderfully nuanced and complete detail. In particular I applaud Fletcher for creating a female character in a male dominated culture that is tough, competent and even a little cynical without turning her into Zena the warrior princess.

The slightly convenient nature of some of the plot’s progression was also not helped by Fletcher resorting to that hoary old cliché, having Marjan on two occasions just happen to be in a position to overhear significant conversations. Something which is doubly odd given that Fletcher emphasises repeatedly how empty the palace is, making the chances of unexpectedly running across the evil plot all the slimmer.

There is no denying that the book does have a slightly pedagogical edge, though for the most part Fletcher was able to stay the right side of preachy. Indeed, the “meditations upon life and storytelling” which begin each chapter, which range from a discussion of needing to be careful what you wish for, to a detailed explanation of Aunt Chava’s method for identifying ripe melons definitely flow very well as part of Marjan’s story rather than statements of Fletcher’s own beliefs. The same goes for the occasion when Marjan worries that the story she’s found for Shahrazad to tell the Sultan contains an evil princess; so might reinforce his misogyny, but Shahrazad explains that her aim is not to convince the Sultan that all women are saints, but that all women are different and should be judged on their individual merits rather than being universally lauded or condemned.

That being said, a few other moralising passages, for example when Marjan “wishes for a land where everyone was equal” did strike me as going a little too far.

On the one hand, the final climax of the book, when we eventually did get to meet the Sultan and how Shahrazad’s story resolved was wonderfully delivered, especially with how nasty some of Marjan’s experiences leading up to that point were. Fletcher managed to impart enough romance for a fairy tale, without the feeling of the authorial fairy simply waving her wand. Indeed, it is this balanced climax, particularly with how the Sultan is depicted as neither entirely evil nor completely sympathetic that Fletcher really displays her own talent as a writer.

I was however not happy with how Marjan’s story resolved. Though there were some revelations along the way that meant Marjan was emotionally in a better place than when she started, in terms of the nuts and bolts of the actual plot there were far too many lose ends. One extremely large one was the Khatun, who not only received no just deserts, but also had no lessening of her power or influence either. Indeed, there is absolutely no reason why the Khatun couldn’t have had Marjan, Shahrazad and pretty much everyone else assassinated the second the book ended.

While Fletcher in the book’s ending clearly wanted to emphasise that “happily ever after” only occurs in stories and real life is far more messy, at the same time, the book left me with a slightly bitter taste since Fletcher doesn’t really give us much idea at all that Marjan’s future will be a particularly happy one, even if not cut short by Khatun. The lonely old pigeon keeper, “crazy Zaynab” seems a worryingly accurate portrait of Marjan’s possible future given that her concerns about the marriage prospects of a girl with a crippled leg are never answered. It is odd that Fletcher’s dragon chronicles books felt somewhat constrained by her need to write a “happily ever after, marriage and children” ending for each of her female protagonists, and yet here the book feels little empty without it, or at least without any indication that Marjan actually had a possible future.

Of course, this might be my own personal bias, since I am more than aware (both academically and personally), of the problems disabled people have with relationships in today’s culture, let alone disabled women in ancient Persia, which possibly means I am a little more cynical than either Fletcher, or Marjan. Still, perhaps an indication that Marjan’s story telling abilities could have actually earned her some sort of advantageous position in spite of her disability might have been appreciated.

Despite a slightly unfinished ending, a little too much need to carry the plot forward and a Khatun with no resolution, I really enjoyed Shadow Spinner and regard it as the best book of Fletcher’s I’ve read so far. A fascinating look into a very different culture, and a chance to consider the story of a truly unique literary character as well as the world around her makes this a must read for anyone who wants to consider their traditional fairy tales, and those who tell them a little more closely.

This Shadow Spinner book review was written by

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