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Literature / Rose of the Prophet

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A little-known fantasy trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Rose of the Prophet manages to transcend its genre and create a beautiful and believable world/cosmology, memorable and lovable characters, and an entertaining and quite moving story—all while conforming to the rules and structure of your standard Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing game. Really—it has to be read to be believed.

Most of the action takes place within the cities and deserts of an Arabian Nights-esque land in a multi-faceted world of magic and adventure. There is crisis among the One-And-Twenty Gods and their attendant Immortals; two Gods have diminished into non-existence, the gods all blame each other, and one God fears the conflict will soon spread to the human realm as jihad, holy war.

The Wandering God Akhran tries to unite two feuding tribes of his desert nomads against the threat, by commanding the marriage of Princess Zohra, of the shepherding Hrana tribe, to Prince Khardan, Caliph of the horse-herding Akar...but seeing as Chaos and Impatience are two of Akhran's attributes (and his people are faithful followers indeed), it doesn't go as well as Akhran might have wished.

Akhran convinces Promenthas (a God of a medieval-Europe style land across the ocean) to ally with him, and they arrange for the young wizard Mathew (lone survivor of a slain ambassadorial party) to wind up among the feuding nomads. Khardan, Zohra and Mathew, along with their tribes' djinn and a guardian angel, must somehow prevent a massive army from conquering the mortal world, a vastly overpowered efreet from banishing all other Immortals, and one god from eliminating all the others—and shattering the cosmic balance forever.

The three books are:

  • Volume 1: The Will of the Wanderer (1988)
  • Volume 2: The Paladin of the Night (1989)
  • Volume 3: The Prophet of Akhran (1989)

This book series provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Mathew considers all life sacred. When he's forced to kill Meryem to save Khardan's life he suffers a minor BSOD but that's nothing compared to his shock when an out-of-control spell accidentally kills thousands!
    Auda: There is no war in your land? The magi do not fight?
    Mathew: I do not fight!
  • Affably Evil: Auda Ibn-Jad. A merciless monster of a man, but almost unfailingly polite at all times, and genuinely honourable in his own way.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: The setting, mostly. When it's not wandering entirely off the planet or into time-travelling dream cities.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: A lot of characters drift close to this sometimes, most egregiously Mathew, who despite being a sorcerer doesn't believe in the existence of djinn-and even after he accepts their existence (having been witness to their powers multiple times) still doubts the existence of angels, who are part of his own religion! Oddly, even though he doubts the existence of angels, he's fully prepared to believe in the existence of devils, although admittedly he had just summoned one at the time.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: "The Rebirth", the procedure the Paladins of the Night use to replenish their depleted ranks; captured Worthy Opponents are tortured by the Lifemaster until they are utterly broken and pray to Zhakrin to accept their loyalty in exchange for release from their torment. Khardan thwarts this due to the similarity in the sounds of "Zhakrin" and "Akhran".
    Auda: Naked, covered with blood, we are born into this world...
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Zohra and Khardan. The highlight of their wedding night is Zohra stabbing Khardan. And it doesn't improve by much.
  • Butt-Monkey: Usti, the comically overweight, much-abused djinn assigned to Zohra by Fedj (who actually does so as an act of revenge against Usti for some unspecified slight).
  • Cain and Abel: Sort of. Khardan and Achmed eventually end up on opposite sides of the conflict when Achmed becomes Qannadi's adopted son and most loyal general, but neither is considered the "bad" one.
  • Chess with Death: Pukah challenges Death to a bet-if he can survive one day in Serinda, the city she rules where all the imprisoned Immortals die and are resurrected every day, she must free them all. He wins, thanks to Asrial.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Other than more powerful magic (such as that which allows the holder of their mortal dwelling place to command a djinn) Cold Iron is the only thing than can restrain an immortal. Like Kaug.
  • Child by Rape: This is the means by which Black Paladins produce new children, with captured women used as breeding slaves for them. It's also stated that some monsters on their island reproduce by raping women.
  • Cold Iron: The main weakness of all Immortals — it can't hurt them, but it can bind them and render them powerless. A common threat used against the djinn is being locked in an iron box and put somewhere nasty where they'll never be found. Pukah defeats Kaug by tricking him into entering an entire mountain made of the stuff.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The god of the pseudo-Europeans, Promenthas, is clearly based on the Christian deity, and he has an evil rival Astafas (like the Devil). Also, their religion is unique in that it rejects other gods' existence.
  • Deal with the Devil:
    • Mathew deals with an Imp of Astafas in The Paladin of the Night and nearly loses his soul before he finally rejects it.
    • Asrial makes a deal with Death to betray Pukah in exchange for letting her go free to protect Mathew in his darkest hour. Or at least it seems like she does-although she delivers Pukah's protective amulet to Death, instead of leaving she takes Pukah's place and sacrifices herself to let him win his bet with Death.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Prevalent throughout the story. Mathew is shocked and bewildered by the brutal and simplistic worldview of the people of Akhran, who have little regard for the sanctity of life, even though they are generally good honourable people.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Auda is a coldly violent assassin who serves a brutal Religion of Evil. He hits relentlessly on Mathew (starting when he was Disguised in Drag but also afterward), a foreign Long-Haired Pretty Boy, and Zohra (a Tomboy Princess) as well. Also his affection toward Khardan easily comes off as likely more than just fraternal. He's rather complex though, as despite being evil Auda genuinely does love some people, with nobility in his way.
  • Disguised in Drag: Mathew gets repeatedly mistaken for a woman and then forced to dress as one, which then becomes a disguise. This endangers his life later, since he's accused of attempting to seduce a man this way, which is a capital crime (but poor Mathew intended no such thing-he's actually asexual).
  • Does Not Like Men: Zohra holds all men in contempt, although she gets along well with Mathew and eventually warms up to Khardan, finally consummating their marriage.
  • The Dragon: Kaug serves as one to Quar, being one of his most potent tools both in the mortal world and in the realm of the immortals. By the third book, Quar is strong enough that the combined might of all of Akhran's Djin (and likely any other deities' immortals) isn't enough to slow him down.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Mathew is so pretty that he is mistaken for a woman by both Auda's slaver caravan (who promptly make him dress like one, with him forced to go along with it to survive), and Khardan when he saves him from them.
  • Enemy Mine: The Hrana and the Akar are bitter enemies united solely by Akhran's command, and they make only the most token of efforts to get along.
  • Eunuchs Are Evil: Two unnamed eunuchs are guards of the harem in the Sultan's palace, portrayed as loyal mooks.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: The Paladins of Zhakrin are about as evil as they come, but they set a GREAT store by loyalty, family and brotherhood.
  • Exact Words: Fedj convinces Zohra to stick out her marriage to Khardan by pointing out that while it is Akhran's will that they remain married until the Rose of the Prophet blooms, he did not specify that the marriage had to be consummated.
  • Expy:
    • While a lot of the setting has similarities to real world cultures and religions, Promenthas is in almost all respects the New Testament Judeo-Christian God, complete with a hierarchy of angels and tenets of love, peace and universal brotherhood.
    • Additionally, while he's only a single god in a pantheon rather than the almighty power above all, he's notable for being one of the few gods whose followers don't even believe in the existence of other gods apart from Astafas, Promenthas' evil opposite and Sularin's version of Satan (other gods' followers at least acknowledge the existence of the pantheon, even if they only worship their own god) making the Promenthan religion fundamentally monotheistic.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: In Tara-kan, we have desert-dwelling nomadic tribes clearly based on Bedouin Arabs, with people around them also being Arab but living in different city-states, plus an empire to the north. Across the sea, we have another continent pretty obviously inspired by medieval Europe, probably a northern part given the pale looks of people from there. However, in a twist the counterpart Arabs are pagans, and not Muslim (though there is one sect which resembles fanatical Islam), while the counterpart Europeans have a religion very much like Christianity.
  • Female Angel, Male Demon: The only named angel of Promenthas is Asrial, although she does mention male angels (and a few nameless ones are seen in Serinda); the only example of one of her evil counterparts we see (an Imp of Astafas) is male.
  • Femme Fatale: Meryem, a villainous seductress, spy and even assassin who uses her great beauty to get what she needs, but is also knowledgeable of all the ways of Benario the Thief God and his poisoned weapons.
  • Fish out of Water: Mathew, who not only faces a major culture clash from being left along in the savage desert lands of Akhran's people, but is constantly handicapped by his lack of access to his wizarding tools, leaving him scrabbling for any advantage he can get.
  • The Fundamentalist: Many of the characters in the series are driven by their beliefs to some extent or another, but Feisal the Imam of Quar is utterly devoted, body and soul, to his god.
  • God Is Flawed: Pretty much all of them are to some extent, some more than others. For example Akhran, despite being a noble and honourable warrior god, couldn't organise his followers into an egg-and-spoon race (unsurprising considering he's the god of Faith, Impatience and Chaos).
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The main cause of the conflict-Quar wants all the worship for himself.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The Tara-kan language obviously is a take-off of Arabic. The word "jihad" is thrown around and stated to mean "holy war". Jihad actually translates as "struggle", and has a fairly in-depth amount of context, though it can be used to mean holy war in very specific circumstances. However, that is simply one of many Arabic words used, along with "effendi", "imam", "sheik" etc.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Zohra hates Meryem from the moment Khardan brings her back to camp with the intent of adding her to his harem even before Meryem tries to murder her and she and Mathew realise Meryem is a spy for the Amir.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Despite gods and their followers in the world of Sularin being openly labelled as good, evil and neutral, almost nothing is as simple as it seems. Khardan notes Zhakrin's Paladins of the Night initially seem to be cruel and heartless monsters, but are caring and loyal to each other; Auda Ibn-Jad is unquestionably an almost immeasurably evil man but risks his life to protect Khardan, even though Khardan tricked him, and eventually sacrifices his life to avenge his earlier brother Catalus. Most notably, the final conflict isn't between the forces of good and evil, but the forces of chaotic neutral (Akhran) and lawful neutral (Quar), with the protagonists on the side of chaotic (usually considered the "bad guys" side in fiction).
  • The Grim Reaper: Death in the series takes the form of a classically beautiful woman with 2 empty voids where her eyes should be.
  • Guardian Angel: Every follower of Promenthas has one and they are the lowest tier of the angelic hierarchy. Asrial is Matthew's. Apparently a demon of Astafas is legally obligated to warn you if they are not present before you make any deal with them regarding your soul or its ownership.
  • Guile Hero:
    • Pukah, although he has a tendency to stuff up hilariously. Also Matthew to an extent; while a powerful sorcerer in his own land, he's bereft of most of the tools he needs to work his magic for the majority of the story and has to survive on his wits.
    • Pukah sure thinks he is, but for the most part each of his schemes either fails, makes things worse, or works only due to the intervention of others. He does however get to redeem himself with a single spectacular triumph near the end.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Asrial makes one to let Pukah win his bet with death, taking his form and dying in his place. She survives.
    • Pukah in turn makes one to defeat Kaug, luring the efreet into the Cold Iron mountain of Sul's Curse and ordering Asrial to shut the gates, locking them both in together. Somewhat subverted in that we last see him hiding from the raging Kaug in a secret grotto at the heart of the mountain, smugly making plans for what he's going to do when he eventually escapes, although he doesn't have a firm plan for doing so.
  • Honor Before Reason: Khardan shifts around this trope a bit, ranging from simple Pride Before Reason to a steadfast Faith Before Reason.
  • Idiot Hero: Pukah often drifts into this while trying to be a Guile Hero. He isn't stupid, but his ego and overestimation of his own ideas cause him to carry the Idiot Ball on a regular basis. His problem is largely that he always tries to set up elaborate Xanatos Gambits when what he's actually good at is thinking on his feet.
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: This is what keeps drawing Khardan back to Zohra despite everything she does that antagonises him- with every woman in his tribe willing to throw themselves at his feet, Zohra is the one woman who never gives him a inch. The story even mentions as such when Khardan refuses to take another wife after marrying her, noting that Zohra makes other women seem boring by comparison.
    There were times, however, when he admitted to himself that the eyes of the sparrow were dull and lackluster after one has looked into the fiery black eyes of the hawk.
  • I Owe You My Life: Mathew decides after Khardan saves his life that even if his life isn't worth living for himself, he'll live to pledge it to Khardan's.
  • It's All About Me: Khardan's Fatal Flaw. He eventually realizes it and overcomes it.
  • Jerkass: Meelusk the fisherman, a miserable, shrivelled, selfish old bastard who is described as being so low that even the followers of Benario the Thief God spit on him in contempt.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • Although much of it can be attributed to her being the Tsundere Rebellious Tomboy Princess of a harsh people in a harsh land who grew up without her mother's guidance to boot, Zohra really can be unnecessarily nasty sometimes. She does truly love her people though, even if she holds most of them in contempt (to be fair, she holds almost EVERYONE in contempt).
    • Likewise, Khardan is honourable, noble and honest, but he's also capable of being a real ass sometimes. His cluelessness about Zohra's feelings gets him into NO end of trouble when he brings Meryem back to camp for the first time (he thought she'd be PLEASED that he wanted to take another wife, assuming that he'd "tamed" her as a result of their last Ship Tease moment).
    • Between the two of them they take Belligerent Sexual Tension to the level of actually wanting to see the other die in pain and disgrace! It's little short of a miracle that they finally admit their love for each other once and for all.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: Mathew is described this way-he's very attractive, long-haired and beardless (as all men of his people are). This gets him mistaken for a lovely woman repeatedly, as it's so different from the gender norms of men in Tara-kan.
  • Love at First Sight: Pukah had always dreamed of winning himself a grand palace with beautiful djinneyeh to serve him, but after he lays eyes on the beautiful Asrial for the first time he never thinks of another woman.
  • Magic Music: Asrial has the ability to sing a beautiful song that puts those who hear it to sleep. Whether any other Immortals share this ability is unknown as the only time it is used in the series is when Asrial puts Pukah to sleep so she can take his form and die in his place, allowing Pukah to win his bet with Death.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Mathew is accused of cross-dressing to seduce a man. This comes close to resulting in him being killed, since this is a capital crime (he's actually asexual, having been forced into cross-dressing initially).
  • The Mole: Meryem is a spy for the Amir.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Used frequently during some of the arguing among the djinn (and to a lesser extent, others), with the text noting such things as one questioning if the other's ancestry included a goat and such.
  • Nay-Theist: Downplayed with the Aran, Hrana and Akar. As Akhran can rarely be bothered to do anything for them, they've learned not to rely overmuch on his rules and most days are just as likely to ignore him as worship him. It takes a prolonged bout with the Godzilla Threshold for Majiid to agree to Akhran's order for Khardan and Zohra's Arranged Marriage.
  • No Guy Wants an Amazon: The reason Zohra remained unmarried for 22 years before her enforced union with Khardan was that as soon as her father announced her eligibility for marriage all the single young men of the tribe either hastily married or headed for the hills and didn't come back until she'd publicly sworn that no man would have her. Khardan eventually comes to see that Amazons have their good points (Auda also finds her incredibly attractive).
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Khardan decides that the only way to spare Mathew's life (the people of Akhran consider him an abomination for dressing in women's clothing) is that he is insane (they believe insane people saw the face of Akhran just before they were born and are blessed by the god). Mathew goes along with it to save his life and ultimately finds a way to use it to his advantage.
  • Our Ghouls Are Creepier: Classic Arabian ghuls, man-eating shapeshifters who man the ship leading to the island fortress of Zhakrin's paladins and take their payment in human flesh, although clearly distinct from djinn.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Auda gets a good one.
    Feisal: Give me a knife...
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: This is more or less the hat of the people of Akhran- the horse-riding Akar are the most warlike, but even the sheep herding Hrana have their pride and will fight at the drop of a hat and the camel-riding Aran are pretty much the same.
  • Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: Mathew settles into this with Khardan and Zohra by the end of the trilogy. Though he is in love with both of them, he's not interested in pursuing either of them romantically, where they both have only eyes for eachother, in a Masochism Tango sort of way.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Zohra is of this opinion for much of the series, and treats the women of her tribe with at best derision, preferring to dress as a man and go horse riding and hunting and what have you. She eventually realizes that this is not the case. See Silk Hiding Steel below.
  • Religion of Evil: The Black Paladins of Zhakrin, whose sole aim is evil, and even call themselves that. As such they take slaves, ritually murder people in Zhakrin's name, and reproduce by raping captured women. However, at the same time the Paladins truly believe in brotherhood, family and loyalty.
  • Runaway Bride: Zohra tries to flee her marriage to Khardan (after failing to disembowel him at the altar) but is coerced into sticking it out by Fedj.
  • Save Your Deity: At the climax of Prophet of Akhran, Khardan decides that even if he dies and his people are exterminated, he can save Akhran by reaffirming his faith in him when tempted by Feisal.
  • Scary Black Man: Raja, Sheykh Zeid's gigantic ebony-skinned djinn.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Zohra usually doesn't make any effort with her appearance, considering her femininity more of a curse than a blessing. But the story notes that when she does go to the effort she's stunningly beautiful and she knows how to use it.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: The women of the Akar, Hrana and Aran, much to Zohra's ignorance. It's a major turning point for her to realize that just because they aren't bloodthirsty and waving swords around like the men that doesn't mean they are weak by any measure.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Pukah is convinced he's the cleverest and most handsome of all immortals... and causes no end of trouble as a result. He's not entirely without talent, being cunning, quick-thinking and daring, but his abilities don't even come close to his overinflated opinion of himself. He eventually realises how badly he fell into this trope, how much trouble he caused and how even his successes were largely due to others and redeems himself with a truly brilliant Thanatos Gambit Heroic Sacrifice that defeats Kaug the Efreet and single-handedly turns the war in the heavens against Quar. Ironically, this actually makes him famous across the heavens- Quar curses his name daily and the immortals of Akhran (as well as Asrial) from then on refer to the mountain of Sul's Curse as 'Pukah's Peak'.
  • Threat Backfire: Khardan walks right into this one when, during a fight between his people and Zohra's, he calls off one of his men attacking her to take her himself:
    Zohra: Oh, won't he? (slashes his leg with her dagger)
  • Tomboy Princess: Zohra; her character introduction notes that her father indulged her and let her run wild in his grief over her mother's death and by the time he tried to rein her in it was far too late. The one time he threatened to beat her she snatched the stick from his hand and threatened to beat him instead!
  • Treacherous Advisor: When the other gods try to defend Quar from Akhran's early accusations, they point out how Quar had tried to keep peace between the two warring dieties. Akhran points out that Quar's peacemaking seemed to always 'accidently' bring up some atrocity or dispute between the two, leading to more fighting.
  • Tsundere: Zohra, like you would not BELIEVE. Khardan too. Even as early as their wedding night there's a hint of attraction there (physical at least) and all throughout the trilogy hints of their growing feelings for each other keep bubbling up, but any time they're forced to confront these feelings their pride drives them to deny them.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: There are at least three plots that intertwine, affect each other, and sometimes reflect each other.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Good grief do Zohra and Khardan keep it up for along time — the entire trilogy, only being brought together by Mathew on the very last page of the third book.
  • The Vamp: Meryem, who was initially sent to Khardan as a spy, and plans to seduce him into decadence.
  • Virtue/Vice Codification: The universe of Sularin is based around a strict codification of 12 vices and virues which create the five good, five evil and ten neutral gods.
  • Wham Line: At the end of the first book when the man in the white palanquin catches up with Mathew again.
    Auda: In the name of Zhakrin, God of Darkness and All That Is Evil, I command you all- sleep...."
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Mathew easily comes off as an extremely beautiful woman while he dresses as one. Even prior to this he had been been mistaken for one. He is a good man who'd been forced to cross-dress, though In-Universe it's viewed as a capital offense after Mathew supposedly attempted seducing a man by wearing this (that wasn't what he'd intended).
  • Worst Wedding Ever: The biggest fiasco this side of the Ranma ½ finale, with both parties constantly insulting each other, the bride having to be dragged to the altar bound and gagged, the groom made to attend literally falling down drunk, the bride attempting to gut the groom as soon as the knot is tied before fleeing and the entire affair breaking out into a bloody brawl until Sond brings the tent down on everyone to prevent casualties.
  • Wicked Cultured: Auda again. A Man of Wealth and Taste, as it were, he masquerades as a rich slave trader while in the desert lands, carried around on a palanquin- but is by no means soft or weak.