The advance copy of Michael David Lukas's The Oracle of Stamboul came in a lovely purple envelope with, I think, a hoopoe on the "seal".
In late nineteenth-century Romania (or what will become Romania), Eleonora Cohen is a gifted child born to an average family, her birth heralded by an ancient Tartar prophecy: "a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon". The prophecy seems to be correct. The village of Constanta is ravaged by the Third Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry. An odd flock of purple-and-white hoopoes has taken up residence around the Cohen house. Amid the chaos of the cavalry attack, Leah Cohen dies giving birth to her extraordinary daughter.
As Eleanora grows, it becomes obvious that she possesses an extraordinary intelligence. When her father takes a business trip to Stamboul, she stows away in his luggage to escape her aunt/step-mother's repressive ideas about the education of women. However, her father dies while in Stamboul leaving eight-year-old Eleanora in the care of an old family friend. In the glittering city on the Bosporus, Eleanora educates herself and crosses paths with the Sultan and history.
While the main action of the novel lies with Eleanora, two other characters are used to flesh out the story: the Reverend James Muehler, the head of Robert's College in Stamboul, and Sultan Abdulhamid II. The Sultan is portrayed as an entirely sympathetic character, a gentle man, surrounded by tradition and placed in an impossible position by the ruling European powers. He is patient and intelligent; he makes no decisions without carefully weighing all the information at his disposal. Although he plays multiple roles, the Reverend, on the other hand, is the one character I felt to be a non-entity. He is used to convey information between characters or play off other characters, but the massive backstory given to him - then imparted to the reader - seems to be in the way; much of the dimensionality of the character goes unused and it's such a waste. That is really my only complaint about the novel.
I've been mulling over my review for a while, unsure of what to add. The Oracle of Stamboul is a quiet book; rather than earthshaking, it is beautiful in its peaceful progression. There are a few moments of high drama but the denouement of the novel unfolds logically. The majority of the book is devoted to following Eleanora as she decides which path her life will take, a true bildungsroman.
The Oracle of Stamboul is a delightful work of historical fiction with a dash of magical realism. Eleanora is a savant with a flock of unusual birds that follow her from her hometown to a huge city, there are spies and political plots floating around town. The Ottoman Empire is beginning a slow disintegration; recently forced to cede the Crimea and part of the Balkans, the Empire is continually harried by the Russians. I really enjoyed reading this book, set at such a fascinating time in history at the crossroads of the world.
The Oracle of Stamboul goes on-sale February 8, 2011 (hardcover and nook).
Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.