Sexism, violence and skullduggery cast 16th-century Iran into turmoil in the second historical novel by Amirrezvani (The Blood of Flowers, 2007).
Javaher, a eunuch, is the loyal servant of Princess Pari, a wise if occasionally headstrong daughter of the shah. He admires both her strong will and her generosity to the impoverished women who come to her for support. But he has personal motives for getting close to the upper tier of Iranian royalty: He is determined to learn who among the nation’s elite is responsible for his father’s murder. That’s what prompted him to become a eunuch and thus enter the court, a transformation that Amirrezvani describes in visceral and surprisingly sensuous detail; though the process itself is unsettling, Javaher becomes an attentive lover, in keeping with his acuity for understanding people’s motivations. His best-laid plans are upset when the shah dies and is replaced with his son Isma‘il, who begins a reign that is neglectful, deadly and petty, and that threatens to break down the fragile truces with neighboring lands. Pari, marginalized by Isma‘il’s tyrannical behavior and overall sexism in the court, begins a scheme to end his reign, with Javaher serving as assistant, sounding board and spy. Making Javaher central to the story is an ingenious tactic on Amirrezvani’s part; his role allows him to navigate the highest and lowest castes of Iranian society, and though the cast of characters is large, the nature of the disputes never become too baroque. The story is bogged down somewhat, though, by many interior scenes that are big on platitude-heavy courtly language. A subplot involving Javaher’s sister has little spark, and even the mystery of his father’s murder lacks much drama. But as Isma‘il’s reign lurches toward its inevitable fate, the closing chapters gain momentum.
An expertly woven, if occasionally talky, tale of gender rights and freedom.