THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE by Salman Rushdie (jacket design by Gabrielle Bordwin, images by various creators, all rights to current holder) is a book I’d really like to like. But even though I gave it three stars on Goodreads right after finishing it, I’m feeling much less enthused a day later.
The framing sequence that opens the book is great. Mogor, a thief/murderer/con-man from Europe, shows up in the court of the Mughal Empire of India around 1600. He poses as a British ambassador and despite the Emperor Akbar’s suspicions, pulls it off. It doesn’t hurt that Akbar gets an immediate bromance for the rogue. They’re strong characters, there’s a lot of tension (if Mogor doesn’t pull it off, he’s dead) and Rushdie really writes beautifully. But it turns out there’s a twist: Mogor claims that he’s kin to Akbar by the enchantress of the title, Qara Koz, a captured princess who married Mogor’s father.
And then we jump back in time for the story of said father (alleged father—Akbar doubts this for various reasons) in Florence decades ago, along with best friend Nico Macchiavelli. While it was fun at first, when it became obvious we weren’t going back to India immediately, the story dragged. It’s the same problem I had with Black Wolves, snatching away the characters I’m interested in and replacing them with a less interesting crop. Much of the story is told at a distance, like someone remembering family history, which makes it hard to be engaged. And there’s none of the tension Mogor’s imposture generates, again partly because of the distance.
Then there’s the sexism. Pretty much every woman in the book is either a wife or a hooker (including one hooker with a heart of gold who generously gives Mogor the magic potion that helps him succeed at court). While Mogor refers to Queen Elizabeth I, women only seem to exist in relation to the men, and they’re constantly backstabbing and scheming and glaring jealously at each other over men. Because what else do they have?
This is also a very male gaze-y book, though in an unusual way. A running theme in the book is the way men bind themselves to women by the fantasies they impose on them (my interpretation, anyway). Akbar’s favorite wife Jodha is a fantasy he longed for so much she became real. Qara Koz seems to exercise a similar magic on the men of Florence — and Mogor’s stories about her and the enchantment they generate, make her appear at Akbar’s court, displacing Jodha in Akbar’s heart. Women don’t spin a web to trap men, men spin it for themselves.
It’s a good idea, but both James Branch Cabell and Carly Simon (in Take Me As I Am) have tackled it to much better effect. And in Enchantress it strips away even the power of beautiful women — ultimately it’s not even their own power. Jodha loses her grip on the emperor and fades away. Qara Koz, for all that she’s the title character, is passed as a spoil of war from one leader to another. Mogor’s father has mindwiped one woman, stripping away her memories so that the only thing in her brain is the epic of his personal adventures. Macchiavelli tries to cure her so that he can screw her, and only drives her to her death.
The good parts are good enough I wish I liked the book. But I don’t.