Review: D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia
Posted by Anneque D. Machelle
Last week I made a video review for D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia. If you haven’t seen the review, you can watch it here. Or, if you like, you can read my thoughts about the story in this article.
A little about D. James. Like many independent writers, D. James runs his own blog, where he serialises his novellas and posts bits and pieces about writing. He’s a fantastic community player and always has at least one project on the go. His eye for detail and ear for trivia make his blog especially interesting to browse. If you haven’t met D. James already, let this link be your formal introduction.
I first came across D. James whilst reading his first novella, Mune and Mura. A historical piece, Mune and Mura stuck out as being particularly well constructed and researched. D. James’s next novella was the science fiction thriller, On Venusian Cloud Colony Number Nine. I say thriller, but on top of suspense and twinges of alien horror, OVCC#9 had these wonderful elements of adventure and epicness, and a kind of cultural depth reminiscent of Wilber Smith or Bryce Courteney. Even if the dialogue was at times a bit stiff, OVCC#9 was a pure delight to read.
Well, OVCC#9 ended and D. James started running his third novella, the Arabian Nights-inspired Sayeh and Zia. D. James says that Sayeh and Zia is fantasy, and while it definitely has a few strokes of that, I found it to lean far more towards historical fiction.
The story kicks off in the year 500 C.E. in the rich Persian city of Susa. Zia, the only child of the city’s richest merchant, is to be married to Yafeu Babafemi, the heir of a powerful Alexandrian trading house. Zia has her doubts about the marriage: Yafeu has a reputation for revenge and a violent temper. But Zia, who shunned her father’s business lessons, knows she has little choice left but to marry the two houses. Her father, wanting the best for both Zia and his wealth, agrees to let Zia travel with Yafeu around the Arabian trading cities, and so get to know him a little better before the marriage goes ahead.
News of Yafeu’s tour spreads like wildfire. It reaches as far as the lost city of Petra, home to Lady Sayeh and her notorious sand pirates. Sayeh has been preying on Yafeu’s caravans for years; now she hears he’s romping around the countryside with caravans full of tradeables and his fiancée, she plans what will be the sand pirates’ biggest ever heist. Sayeh figures if she can kidnap Zia, she can hold her to a pharaoh’s ransom.
That sets the scene for Sayeh and Zia. On one hand we have the demure, dreamy Zia; on the other the fiery, conniving Sayeh. Neither has the ability to confront Yafeu directly (although I really wished one or the other would), but they must each fight a dozen small battles against him to get what they want. There was also a dynamic between Zia and Sayeh that I loved. Zia dreams of adventure and Sayeh is ready to quit the sand pirates for good. Each added layers to the other, and just the way that dynamic played out added endless intrigue to the story’s mysteries. For example, it’s obvious that fate is going to bring the two together. But it also becomes increasingly apparent that the two stand to benefit a great deal from one another; if they can figure this out in time, or at all, gives the story a whole other layer of suspense.
Undoubtedly my favourite part of the story was the sense of adventure. D. James gives us these grand vistas, harsh deserts, little pockets of oases in the form of caravanserai, and everywhere these etchings of culture which made the scenes so vivid. What the characters were eating, wearing, where they were, how they lived. Everything, right down to how Zia’s veil felt on her head, was there. The exposition is deftly done, just a few lines and we’re right in there with them.
Early on, I did feel bogged down by this detail. Not so much that it was excessive, but that the scene was so different from my experience that it required a lot of mental processing power to keep tabs on everything. I am by no means an expert on ancient Arabia, and my mental maps of Petra are admittedly lacklustre. It gave me a kind of imagination lag. I was trying to keep track of new characters and new environments, plus the action and dialogue and its implications for the story, and it actually caused me to blank out on the details. Later, when I went back and read the beginning again, the image I had was much clearer. I think this is a problem in many speculative fiction stories, particularly fantasy. To the author, who is familiar with his subject matter, the pacing is perfect. For an uninitiated reader, it can become quickly overwhelming.
Usually also I would complain about D. James’s overly formal dialogue. Stiff dialogue acted as a fourth wall early in On Venusian Cloud Colony Number Nine, with contemporary characters tending to converse as if they were quoting out of a textbook. In Sayeh and Zia the stiff dialogue returns; however, here it truly finds its home. A meeting between powerful merchants or a very serious conversation between parents and child – formal dialogue is beautiful for that. It adds this great sense of consequence for every action the characters take, a lot of time it’s life and death or pain and servitude, and the dialogue gave a real sense of weight to those decisions. Again it built on that dynamic between Zia and Sayeh: I was very aware that the pair were quickly running out of time and options to help each other, all the while the consequences were becoming ever more dire. It made for some fantastic suspense.
Deep, detailed, enigmatic and adventurous: that is Sayeh and Zia. If you aren’t convinced yet it’s worth your while, you can listen to my reading for the first part here. Otherwise, hit up the full version for free on D. James’s blog. I highly recommend it to any fans of adventure or historical fiction, and I think it’s D. James’s best work yet. I’m giving it four Brendan Frasers out of a mummy.