I couldn't put this book down. It is extraordinarily gripping from the first page to the last, and the characters are so unusual and well-developed that you just want to discover more about them. The book is set in Turkey, in a real place called Elih (fun fact: Elih is the Kurdish name for a real Turkish town called 'Batman'. Nice.) Although the Elih that the author creates is fictitious and nothing like the real place, she chose the Turkish setting because she wanted somewhere with religious tensions between Muslims and Jews that didn't instantly evoke 9/11. You really do learn more about the Islamic faith from the book, as it describes and portrays many rituals, prayers, greetings and passages from the Qur'an and religious tensions. Different groups' interpretations of religious texts are at the heart of the story. Tyler has clearly done her research and, for me, it really paid off.
In this story, there is a 'morality' police force called the RTK. They are a Muslim group who are in control of the city and are, basically, armed policeman who make sure that certain Muslim practices are being followed. There include: not drinking, not smoking, not eating pork, women must wear their burkas and be accompanied by male chaperones, reading material is restricted, women are not allowed newspapers, etc etc. They are an intimidating and brutal force and, as we soon realise, very corrupt.
The RTK become the villains of the piece right from the outset of the book. If you are averse to brutal violence (including sexual and incestual) then you are going to find this book hard going. And I am not exaggerating. I have seen the most violent films out there and read incredibly violent books in the past, and this is definitely up there with them. At one point, I had to put the book down and watch some T.V because some of the violence very prolonged and quite upsetting to read. However, it isn't gratuitous and is vital to the later story lines and provides the motivation of the main character for the events that follow.
Everything about this book feels sinister, suffocating and violent. The oppresive setting of the desert, which clogs your throat whilst also burning and dehydrating you if you dare to stray too far over its unknown terrain, was perfect. I loved the way the sand, like the RTK, managed to find its way into every crack and crevice of society and would occasionally wash over the city in a vicious storm which confined everyone to their homes. The author also uses Bible quotes at the beginning of each chapter, which evoke not a loving, benevolent God but the smiting, vengeful, angry God of the Old Testament, 'on your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat, all the days of your life.' I liked this, as I felt it invoked the violence of religion which is the dark side of any practiced faith: this underbelly of extraordinary violence is always there for those who wish to exploit it, as the RTK do in this book.
Another huge theme in this book is oppression of women and violence towards women. This theme, combined with the shifting narrative which focused on different characters and events sporadically, reminded me of Steig Larsson's 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. This book is very much about men who hate women and men who disrespect women in the worst possible ways. Women are used as pawns in games of power: if a man is to be punished for some crime or wrong he has committed, his wife or daughter is hunted and raped, thus losing her honour and any chance of a good marriage. She is then extradited from the family and either relies on the kindness of strangers or kills herself. Women are constantly assaulted, beaten, and verbally assaulted and blamed for tempting men if they do happen to be sexually attacked. It must be their fault for exposing a hand or an ankle. Darya is the niece of the Mayor of the city, and she represents a woman's lust and longing for a higher position and more power and respect than women are currently receiving. At one point she thinks;
'She yearned for a life in which all men looked at her as a force of nature not to be trifled with, to be able to stand outside in the wind, her hair uncovered, and scream that she had arrived.'
She portrays a kind of Princess Jasmine character; she does a lot of business for the Mayor behind a male pseudonym from her computer, yet no-one knows her true identity or that a woman would be capable of that difficult work and the powerful position. Women are hidden and seen as weak and pathetic; she later takes extreme action against her circumstances with brutal consequences.
Overall, I think what I really loved about this book was how the author defied casting people into roles of 'good' and 'evil'. Characters who are generally good sometimes commit thoughtless acts, and characters who are villains of the most despicable kind can change or can be kind to the people they love. This made the characters much more rounded, and more unpredictable too which kept me engaged right until the very last page. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this series!