Book Review: The Oracle of Stamboul

September 14, 2011 

Tragedy strikes twice on the day in 1877 that Eleonora Cohen is born — her mother dies in childbirth and her hometown, the Romanian port of Constanta, is sacked by the Russian calvary. But there is also an air of magic surrounding Eleonora’s birth. Two Tartar midwives come to the Cohen house just in time to assist in the birth, called forth by a prophecy: “They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon.” And a flock of birds mysteriously appears, purple and white hoopoes, that will thereafter accompany young Eleonora wherever she goes.

Eleonora is raised by her loving father, Yakob, and an overpowering stepmother, Ruxandra. In keeping with the portentousness of her birth, she is a child prodigy. She learns to read and speak other languages with ease and has an amazing memory. Ruxandra, however, is less than thrilled with Eleonora’s talents, which she finds not in keeping with a young girl whose sole goal in life is to find a husband. When Yakob announces he will be traveling to Stamboul (now Istanboul) to sell some rugs, eight-year old Eleonora decides to stow away in one of his trunks. By the time she reveals herself, they have arrived in Stamboul and there is no sending her back.

At the time of Eleonora’s arrival in the imperial capital, the Ottoman Empire is crumbling. The Russians and German are both pressing in on its borders and spies from as far as the United States prowl its streets. One such spy is the Reverend James Muehler, an American professor and clandestine agent, who ends up becoming Eleonora’s tutor. One of the men Muehler is charged with investigating is Moncef Bey, Yakob’s business associate and the Cohens’ host in Stamboul. When she is asked by Muehler to decipher a coded message, Eleonora ends up getting caught between the two men and the political struggles they represent. Meanwhile, the Sultan hears of Eleonora’s gifts and invites her to his palace to advise on the current political situation.

Melding historical realism with fabulist elements, Michael David Lukas spins quite a yarn. He is at his best when evoking the rich sights and sounds of the Turkish capital. This is Eleonora’s first view of Stamboul and the Sultan’s palace:

Already the Bosporus was teeming, packed with fishing boats, caïques, and the occasional lumbering steamer. On the shore, under the shade of cypress trees, miniature people hawked and haggled, bustled, bargained, and prayed. Three gargantuan turtle-domed mosques glinted in the rising sun, their minarets piercing the sky like bayonets, and there, at the confluence of waters, was the most glorious building Eleonora had ever seen. Gardens upon gardens, arches, balustrades, and clerestories ringed by a gleaming white marble wall and watched over by a regiment of glassy towers, Topkapi Palace, the residency of His Excellency Sultan Abdulhamid II, sat perched on the rim of the Golden Horn, a testament to inconceivable wealth and power.

I was carried away by the intrigue of the historical setting and the gracefulness of the prose up to the very end when, unfortunately, I was left wanting more — more magic, more history, more more more. Lukas has a light touch when it comes to the historical context in which The Oracle of Stamboul is set. This may appeal to many readers, but I found myself wanting to know more about the Ottoman Empire and the reasons for its demise. At the same time, the fairy tale quality with which the book begins is never fully realized and the prophecy that accompanies Eleonora’s birth is never fully explained. What is left is a very good novel with a fascinating premise and a charming protagonist, but a book that falls short of the historically rich, epic feel of novels like Middlesex and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

For more on Michael David Lukas and his work, check out his website.

I was provided with a copy of this book for review by the publisher.

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Oracle of Stamboul”

  1. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours Says:
    September 15th, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I’m glad that you enjoyed part of the book even though you found the historical detail to be lacking. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as part of the tour.

  2. Cassandra @ Indie Reader Houston Says:
    September 27th, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    I really enjoyed this book because I could identify with Eleonora in some ways (not magical ones, of course). I can see how you might say that the promise of the fairy tale was not realized. I don’t know if I agree or not. I’ll have to think on that one. A re-read may be in order.