The Kadin by Beatrice Small is one of my favorite books of all time and my favorite Beatrice Small book. Yes, I’ve read them all.
First published in 1978, The Kadin was Small’s debut novel. Small’s research is evident in the many details of harem life and the eastern culture. She takes the reader on a journey from the Scottish Court of James IV, through the Ottoman Empire, inside the Sultan’s harem, before concluding back in Europe in the mid-1500s. Wow! The story is a bit epic historical fiction.
This is a classic saga of love with a Turkish sultan a popular theme in the 70s-80s. Initially I had real problems with the polygamous relationship of a sultan. At the time of reading, I didn’t even know what “poly” meant. Seriously, I was clueless.
The teen (another of my hang-ups) Lady Janet renamed “Cyra” loved Sultan Selim despite having been kidnapped, sold into slavery, and forced to join his harem. And Selim loved her although he never hesitated to take other women to his bed. I struggled with so much of this story premise. I had to take a step back and remind myself The Kadin took place in a different time and in a land far, far away.
Small was cool, before erotic romance was cool, but The Kadin is the most vanilla of all the Small stories. The relationship between the three ladies Cyra, Farousi, and Zuleika was completely unique, at least at the time it was written. I hadn’t read any romances where there was an equal and enduring relationship between the heroine and other women. a trio of women who forged a bond under dire circumstances and made it stick over decades through various trials. The wonderful cast of secondary characters surrounds Cyra as she takes up her role as Salim’s favorite. The ladies are dealt a horrible hand in life. Instead of wallowing in misery, they take what life dealt and they make it work for them. They carve out some happiness. That’s my kind of ladies!
It might be difficult for the reader to comprehend how Lady Janet could transform from a Christian, of Scottish noble birth, naive teen to “Cyra” who could easily accept her fate. As The Kadin continues, it is consistent with her character and her decisions to pursue the path of diplomacy. You can see it, can’t you? A wise-beyond-her-years, cunning and admirable Turkish Kadin, wife to the most powerful leader in the East.
I realize, considering the Middle East of today, romances that feature a Muslim sultan acquiring a European Christian woman to add to his harem, have lost former appeal. It wouldn’t be the fantasy of many women today. I love The Kadin for the friendship among the women. I have wondered what the story would have been if Farousi, or Zuleika had been the sultan’s favorite. Would Small have ended the story in Africa or China?
Note: Historical data shows there was likely a million European captive slaves in the East during the late 1400s-1700s.