The opening passages of this novel describe the arrival of Zohak Ali with his train of camels, elephants and slaves at the golden city of Samarkand. The gorgeous panoply is watched by Anahita, a leatherworker’s daughter who soon attracts Zohak Ali’s interest. Zohak Ali can bring powerful magic to the aid of his schemes to control Samarkand and, when Anahita refuses to marry him, to wreak a terrible revenge upon the girl. Turned into an old crone and fleeing from further tribulation she escapes into mountainous country. Meanwhile, Zohak Ali’s devastation of the buildings and population of Samarkand is counterbalanced by the increasing splendour of his Blue Palace.
Throughout much of this novel there is the feeling of an author trying to convey a sense of the magnificence and mystery of a time when caravans traversed Europe and Asia carrying exotic merchandise and tales of magic and strange doings from faraway parts. Sentences are generally short and simply structured, perhaps to balance a vocabulary which will stretch younger readers. There is little attempt at character development; most of the time the reader’s focus is on Anahita, from the time she first sees Zohak Ali to her enforced exile and eventual triumph over the magician but we never get a sense of her, beyond what is obvious and predictable. Attempts are made to build tension, but we always know that ultimately Anahita will be safe, and it is no surprise at the conclusion to learn the human identity of the bewitched rat and lizard that come to her assistance. This is a book which could have been much richer had the author been a lot less ambitious in his scope. However, I’m sure it will be enjoyed by readers who want a simple good overcomes evil story with an exotic background, and it may have a place as a curricular adjunct to studies of the story’s setting.