Tree of Pearls
This book is essentially two stories in one; both take place in the 13th-century Abbasid Empire. The first story takes place in Egypt and centers around Tree of Pearls, a Turkish slave girl who becomes concubine to the Sultan of Egypt and then Queen. Her rise to power is undone by the machinations of rival concubine Sallafa, who steals her lover, throne, and then has her favorite handmaid and singer, Shwaykar, sent off to the Caliph in Baghdad, billed as the sweetest singer in the Empire.
The second story takes place in Baghdad, dealing mostly with the impending fall of the Abbasid Caliphate to the expanding Mongols. This story revolves around the Caliph’s Prime Minister Mu’ayyid ad-Din and his conflicts with the Caliph’s son and other court favorites. The connecting link between the two stories is the slave girl, Shwaykar, whom the Caliph’s son kidnaps for himself before her caravan reaches the Caliph’s palace. In the end Shwaykar’s lover, Rukn ad-Din, a powerful general from Egypt, arrives in Baghdad in time to rescue her from the machinations of the Caliph’s son, Sallafa (who has also arrived in Baghdad to cause trouble), and the invading Mongols.
The translation is fluid, and the story is charming—even page-turning at times. However, the novel was originally written in 1914 in a culture just beginning to experiment with the novel form, resulting in a lot of authorial intrusions. The author was a scholar and true historian, and it shows. This is Historical Fiction with a capital H. Highly recommended.