The book that I chose to feature this month is The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas. The novel takes place primarily in Stamboul (the modern day city of Istanbul) at the end of the 1800s when the Ottoman Empire is nearing its end. It is the story of a young girl named Eleonora who is born a few years earlier in the summer of 1877 in the town of Constanta on the Black Sea while the town was under attack by the Russian cavalry.
With her impending birth, a flock of purple and white hoopoes (birds) suddenly appear over town and two mysterious Tartar midwives arrive at the door claiming that they have read the signs: “a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy that their last king had given on his deathwatch.” Eleonora’s mother dies during childbirth and she is raised by her carpet-merchant father and an unkindly aunt until a twist of fate at the age of 8 brings her to live in the home of an old friend of her father’s in the imperial capital of Stamboul. Here in Stamboul, Eleonora’s life becomes intertwined with Sultan Abdulhamid II as he attempts to prevent his empire from crumbling.
I chose to read The Oracle of Stamboul primarily because it is a historical novel set in Istanbul and we will be visiting the city for two days in mid-August. I know very little about Istanbul apart from what I have read recently in guide books so I thought this would be an opportunity to read what sounded like a beautifully written book and learn about the history of Istanbul at the same time. I expected to read the book and be transported to the streets of Istanbul and be able to imagine walking the through the city and visiting buildings such as Topkapi Palace.
The book is beautifully written, however, I found it a bit disappointing in that it doesn’t really explore the political situation in any detail so I did not feel like I had learned much about the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the Sultan who was ruling when it happened. Eleonora’s story leaves the reader wanting more as well. There is no real climax to the plot of the story and then it just ends without explaining what it meant to be “The Oracle of Stamboul” and whether the prophecy of the last king had been fulfilled in Eleonora. Much of the story just needed more fleshing out. I’m not sorry that I read the book as it is a very nicely written story that did give me some sense of what Istanbul felt like during this time period, however, I was hoping for so much more.
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