The inspiration for Victoria Princewill’s debut novel was the first person account of Jamila Habashi, an enslaved African woman in Iran. A letter written by Jamila, dated 1905, is included in the book and is the only existing first-person account of an African slave in Iran.

When considering the enslavement of African peoples, the enslavement of Africans in Qajar Iran is, perhaps, not what immediately comes to mind. This, however, is what makes this novel all the more appealing.

The novel centres Jamila, a concubine, and Abimelech, a eunuch who are both, understandably, extremely dissatisfied with their lives in the royal court. To call them dissatisfied is, of course, quite the understatement, something that is illustrated by Princewill’s depiction of their past and present traumas and abuses – never gratuitous, but definitely direct and unflinching.

For both Jamila and Abimelech – each other’s closest ally – the reality is that no matter how long they’ve known their masters, or how well they perform their ‘duties’, they remain insignificant to those above them and viewed as little more than property to be used at will.

It is this that I found most painful to witness: the constant humiliation, the lack of bodily autonomy, the fear and the danger that exists should they dare to voice their desire for more, let alone the suggestion that they might seek to demand it.

Given the context, it is unsurprising that Jamila and Abimelech’s relationship is touching but also tragic. It is easy to consider what their lives could’ve been, the choices they might’ve made – what it means to be able to choose your path in life and love at will.

This is a story of political intrigue, sex and sexuality, ambition and betrayal, all of which make for an appropriately unsettling reading experience. However, beyond all of this, it is a story of friendship, how it feels to desire a place in the world, and the fear of being unloved and forgotten.

Victoria Princewill has written a stunning novel and I’m excited for more people to discover it when it’s published on the 25th February by Cassava Republic.