A stand-alone historical fantasy book set in 12th century Egypt.

Publication year: 1989
Format: print
Page count: 260
Publisher: Bantam

This is a book for horse lovers. It’s a fairy tale expanded to a fantasy.

Hasan is the pampered only son of a rich emir and a thoroughly self-centered, gambling, drunken womanizer. He also lives in Egypt in a time when all decent women live in harems. When he finally gambles away his father’s prized mares, his father has had enough and just tells Hasan that he’s going to be sent for a Beduin who will make a man out of Hasan. Hasan escapes. But instead of doing anything useful, he spends the night drinking, womanizing, and spending the last of his money. After he’s robbed and beaten, he staggers to the house of an old man who nurses him back to health. Recovering, Hasan meets the beautiful young woman who has been nursing him and rapes her. She’s the old man’s daughter. The old man turns out to be a magus and he transforms Hasan to a horse, a red stallion. The magus tells Hasan that he will be a slave to a woman and will die in the horse form.

Soon, a girl does buy Hasan the stallion. She’s Zamaniyah who is around 14 but already has a great eye for horses. She’s also the only daughter of Hasan’s father’s mortal enemy. She names Hasan Khamsin and starts to train him together with her father’s horsemaster, a Greek slave.

The POV characters are Hasan/Khamsin, Zamaniyah, and her eunuch slave Jaffar. Because all of Zamaniyah’s brothers have been slain (by Hasan’s father), her father had decided to raise her has a boy and his heir. She’s forbidden to enter harem, where all of her father’s women, including concubines, live and she’s forbidden to wear women’s clothing or makeup or anything that rich women of that time had. Instead, she’s taught to ride, fight, hunt, and care for horses.

The first half of the book is mostly about Zamaniyah training the horse Khamsin. The second half is set during the sultan Salah ad-Din Yusuf’s war campaign and is quite different from the first.

Zamaniyah is a great character. She always obeys her father, even though sometimes she wishes that she could be an ordinary girl. But on the other hand, she enjoys horse and knows that this is the only way she can train and ride them. But when she’s angry, she forgets to be obedient and quiet, so that nobody will notice how strange she is. She takes a liking to Khamsin and uses a gentle “Greek” way to train him as a warhorse. The women scorn her and the men can’t be friends with her, so her only friend is Jaffar, her eunuch slave who is devoted to her. She also befriends one of her father’s concubines who is a captured Frankish woman.

Tarr doesn’t shy away from showing us the Islamic world at the time, which includes (rich) women shut away to harems, slavery, eunuchs, and that woman are chattel to men. Most men don’t accept Zamaniyah but they must respect that it was her father’s choice to raise her as a boy. Also, the book dealt with surprising amount of rape, although not in any titillating way. So, despite Zamaniyah’s age, this is definitely not YA.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zamaniyah and Khamsin was mostly entertaining, too. I mostly enjoyed this story and except for the fantasy bits, I think it’s fairly accurate description of the times.