I hated this book and loved it in equal measure, and I hated it for the same reason I loved it. If you’re looking for a book that will make you feel the most perfect, soul burning rage, but in a good way, this might be it. Holy goddamn.
Trigger warning for literally every kind of abuse I can think of: emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, suicide ideation, substance abuse, and so so so much of all of it in the worst way. It is a book about survival and someone whose life is so small that for them to even imagine another life, any life at all, required first taking away absolutely every iota of comfort and dignity.
Honestly, I’d read no more than a chapter a day till the 75% mark (and then couldn’t put the rest down). I read an entire other book while reading this book. BUT. It’s a such a fantastic book. Expertly written. Read it, If you can.
The book follows Jenna, an Imperial Princess raised in a Seraglio (a glorified lady-prison) in the fictional empire of Dasnaria. Women are born into a Seraglio and spend their entire lives, and that’s if they’re lucky. Their purpose is to carry children and their education extends no further than what is needed for that purpose. You can imagine how women are viewed and treated in such a world, but you don’t need to, because we see it. We learn that Jenna can’t even count to 10, did not know what shoes were let alone ever seen a pair, what the sun looked like or how it felt on your skin, but she did get extensive training in “the sensual arts” to please her future husband.
We see Jenna transform from a precocious, intelligent, curious child with hopes and dreams into a paranoid, snappish Mean Girl, only to transform again, the day she meets her sadistic future husband, into an absolute wreck finally aware of how little power her beauty and status afford her. We see how she uses her not insignificant intelligence to, over and over, convince herself that escape, from her mother, from the seraglio, from her husband, from her fate is nothing but a dream, even as offers to help come. We watch her shrink into her self until there is almost nothing left. We watch her learn to fear even her own thoughts, to hate the people who care for her enough to act but without listening to her. It is absolutely brutal. We see in great detail the events that cause these transformations.
We also see the parts of her that her world hasn’t managed to burn away. We see her worrying for her sisters, for the women of the palace, for her hypothetical children having the same hollow, awful life as her. Even through the stupor of unimaginable violence, she manages to leverage what little bargaining power she gets from enduring it to shield the people around her from suffering the same fate. Even when she starts toying with the idea of escape, she restrains herself from using people who would doubtlessly help her and doubtlessly die for it. Even in her desperation, she would not use people the way she had been used.
And we see her learn to be brave again. To accept help, and compassion and even pity, when it comes from a place of genuine care. We see her learn to see past the nightmare that is her life and dare to think that maybe she deserved choice, even after a lifetime of conditioning that her life was precisely what she deserved and that she ought to be grateful for it. We see her learn to be curious again. We see her save herself, too, and oh boy is it absolutely glorious.
I have a lot of quotes I love but this is one I would have loved to know was coming:
Without [spoiler]’s help, I could never have escaped. My rank, my beauty, my fortune – everything I’d thought valuable about myself meant absolutely nothing, because I depended on others for everything. Even to stay alive. No more. I might be the flower carefully raised and cut from her garden, but I refused to wither and die. I would find a way to feed myself. To survive.
But more than even about survival, this book, to me at least, is a study in how hard and brave it is to be kind and how important it is to be kind deliberately. When the world tells you that all you have are your secrets and no one can be trusted, that to ask for anything other than the path before you is to endanger not only yourself but those around you, it can take unfathomable courage to reach out to one another. To trust anyone with any part of your true self. To do things for no reason other than it is the kind thing to do. To do those things even for people who have wronged you, because relationships are complicated. To do those things for the person you were before you were brave. And to do these things by choice, not on auto-pilot. Because Jenna is not a doormat, even if she feels that way sometimes. She does not give her forgiveness because of a lack of spine. She chooses each act of kindness with thoughtful deliberation and a full understanding of its implications and the people who receive it know that and it empowers them to be brave too.
More than every act of violence and cruelty, what we see is that deliberate kindness is what lasts and propagates, which seems like a very timely lesson.