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Thursday, February 17, 2011

"The Oracle of Stamboul" by Michael David Lukas (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Michael David Lukas Website
Order 'The Oracle of Stamboul" HERE
Read an Excerpt from The Oracle of Stamboul HERE

INTRODUCTION: The Oracle of Stamboul was the first real positive surprise of 2011 for me as it was a book that came out of nowhere for me and took over my reading with a combination of magical prose and pitch perfect atmosphere.

I recently saw the title in a list of "just published" books when looking for more information about what turned out to be the first big flop of 2011 for me and the title sounded appealing, so I checked the blurb below which made me continue exploring the novel, while the excerpt linked above convinced me to get the novel immediately and then it took over my reading.

"Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. "They had read the signs, they said: 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." But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora's mother dies soon after the birth.

Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Oracle of Stamboul is a magical novel, short but fulfilling. Somewhere at the border between historical fiction and the fantastic, not straying away from the possible but hinting at the supernatural, the book has as main protagonist Eleonora, a girl whose birth in unsettled and ultimately tragic circumstances is heralded by portents.

Growing up in Constanta on the Black Sea - the ancient Tomis of Ovid and a city I spent many summers on its beaches, though here we see it in the twilight of the Ottoman era and the beginning of the Romanian one in the 1870-1880's - and in a world of prejudice against women and minorities - her family is a Jewish merchant one - Eleonora is grudgingly allowed to develop her stunning intellectual gifts by doting father Yakob Cohen against the wishes of her aunt/stepmother Ruxandra who pushes her into "women stuff" - eg housework of all kinds from as early an age as possible.

There are strict conditions that Eleonora cannot show or tell anyone what she learns since already a flock of rare birds has taken residence around her house and sometimes the birds are following her when she goes out and as Ruxandra knows too well, when you are Jewish and reasonably prosperous, it is not good to attract too much attention. As it's obvious, soon Eleonora will make a naive misstep when shopping with her aunt and the ignorant shop boy miscounts the change, so from then on she is restricted to one book per month.

In very poignant scenes we follow the 8 year old as she must a make a choice as what book she will get to treasure in the next month, until by chance she discovers an old favorite novel of her mother, a 7 volume series called The Hourglass which will open her eyes to the wider world and give her a taste for adventure. So when her father goes to expand his business to Stamboul, it is natural for Ellie to follow what she has learned in her treasured books and sneak in a trunk with all planned as how she will endure the week long sailing trip.

And so Eleonora's adventure begins and in the Ottoman capital we meet an assorted cast of characters that will interact with her in both usual and unusual ways of which the most notable are Yoncef Bey a Turkish official and intellectual with a reputation for subversive liberal thought, Rev. Prof. Muehler who is rector of the American college there and moonlights as a spy for both the Grand Vizier and the US government and of course Abdulhamid himself, the (last true) Sultan of the empire...

As structure, The Oracle of Stamboul mostly follows Ellie's POV but alternates it with the Sultan's one and occasionally with some of the other adults that come into Eleonora's magical circle. There are no other children in the book and in many ways her world is the world of a "real world" child - doing what the adults ask while creating her own separate universe - though the mundane and the fantastic intertwine around her.

The main strength of the book is the superb style of the author - poetic and evocative, but also making one turning the page until the "too soon, I want more" fitting end. From this point of view the book sits comfortably in the tradition of tales of yore without any modern anachronisms regarding the way the world was in the late 19th century. The atmosphere is also wonderfully evocative and I felt the author really understood the flavor of the places where he has his action happening.

The Oracle of Stamboul (A+)
also belongs to the category of books that feature children as main protagonists but are not really addressed to them for the reasons expounded above - basically the children live in an adult world and follow adult rules, rather than being the motive power of action, eg saving the day, world, situation, by themselves - the awesome The Children's Book by AS Byatt or the excellent but darker The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti are similar narrative space novels I have reviewed here - and as such it is a book for all ages, but one that I predict will be enjoyed more by lovers of beautifully written "magical" tales than anyone else.

I would like to note that The Oracle of Stamboul is Michael David Lukas' debut though it reads like the work of a quite experienced writer...


Chad Hull said...

Wow, you certainly got my attention. I'll be keeping an eye out for this.

kyodnb said...

hmm...the Constanta thing sounds interesting :) I saw that the author has nothing to do with Romania, but he was for a few years in Turkey, so i`m curios about how he wrote about the town.
even if it`s about another period of time than ours. and you made me interested in the book, too..let`s not forget that ;)

Liviu said...

Chad: thanks for the kind words; hope you read it and enjoy it as much as me

kyodnb:The action takes place in Constanta only for a while - the title is accurate after all - but Bucharest is mentioned and some details are given all sounding well; the author got the atmosphere of the 1880's pitch perfect imho and that was one of the things that made the book such a hit.

The excerpts from the (fictive) book Eleonora finds, The Hourglass are actually more about Romanian stuff than the Oracle book itself and there the author sounds authentic also - good names, reasonable action...


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