Debbie Taylor has woven an intriguing and erotic tale of life in a harem, where the spacious rooms are filled with incense, jewels, exotic silks and jealousy. By law, the emperor is allowed to marry four queens; whenever there is an opportunity, the chosen queens are exposed to all manner of sabotage from the other women in the harem, those who covet their positions.
Helen Gloag sails from Scotland on a ship bound for Boston and a new life. After her ship is attacked by pirate, who steal the cargo and the passengers, Gloag is lost to history. It is here that Taylor fills in the missing details of this actual historical figure with a vivid imagination. With freckled skin and red-gold curls, Helen is chosen by the Emperor of Morocco for his harem, so enamored is he of the pale flesh of European women. Helen is immersed in endless days of luxury and outrageously pampered for the emperorís enjoyment. That she should fall in love with this man, seduced by her newfound concupiscence, is an unexpected and welcome surprise.
The women are supervised by the royal eunuchs, among them the Chief Eunuch Microphilius, a dwarf who falls instantly under Helenís spell. Microphilius harbors a secret: he is not emasculated like the other royal eunuchs and enjoys the favors of The Black Queen, second wife, a mountain of fleshly pulchritude. The Black Queen observes his attraction to Helen, but loves Microphilius enough to allow this errant affection.
For all the garish beauty and indulgence of harem life, jealousy festers among the women, each craving the attention of the emperor, each dreaming of carrying his heir. First one of the queens falls ill, slowly losing her beauty and her wits. Then Helen, now the Fourth Queen called Aziza, is stricken and forced to withdraw from the emperorís embrace; and finally, a third queen. Either some terrible punishment is visited upon the queens or someone is poisoning them. It falls to Microphilius to discover the cause or the culprit.
Taylor has crafted a stunning and imaginative novel of life in a royal harem circa 1769, its agonies and its ecstasies. She does so with little historical detail outside the walls of the harem; but inside, the rooms are rich with the colorful personalities of the women and their interminable machinations. The story is told from two perspectives, Helenís and Microphiliusí. Helen is both naÔve and gluttonous, hungry for wealth, attention and luxury. Microphilius observes with a more reasoned perspective, describing an emperor capable of savage inhumanity and renowned for his disparate cruelties. Watching Helen fall hopelessly in love, Microphilius allows her self-deception, protecting her interests and comforting her when she becomes mysteriously ill.
For all their isolation, the women of the harem exact their personal revenges upon the emperorís realm. The heavily claustrophobic air of the womenís quarters turns from convivial to menacing as the emperorís pawns dance for the man who controls their fate, and their small world is restricted to the most intimate and selfish emotions. There is an excess of erotic detail, which will satisfy some, but does not sidetrack the authorís focus. The Fourth Queen is a tightly woven tapestry of distorted emotions and unfulfilled yearning for a life more simple and livable.