Sheer reading pleasure: Gorgeous writing, lush detail, and a dollop of magic in a historical novel


A review of The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you enjoy reading for its unique possibilities — mellifluous language, vivid imagery,  immersion in places and circumstances you might never experience — then you’ll love this book. From the very first page, The Oracle of Stamboul will draw you relentlessly into the world of the Ottoman Empire in its twilight years of the 1880s. You’ll meet an extraordinary child, Eleanora Cohen, and you’ll be present with her from the violence of her birth in Rumania through her ninth year in Istanbul (then Stamboul) as the unlikeliest of advisers to the Sultan. You’ll revel in the sights and sounds and smells of this fabled imperial capital of two million souls, and you’ll gain a front-row seat on the plotting and scheming in the palace and among the timid revolutionaries who only wish that something, perhaps anything, might change. This book is a marvel of the writer’s craft.

For example, consider this scene-setting passage:

“Summer slipped into Stamboul under the cover of a midday shower. It took up residence near the foundations of the Galata Bridge and drifted through the city like a stray dog. Ducking in and out of alleyways, the new season made itself felt in the tenacity of fruit flies buzzing about a pyramid of figs, in the increasingly confident tone of the muezzin, and the growing petulance of the shopkeepers in the produce market.”

And that’s just the beginning of the paragraph.

The nine-year arc of this richly detailed story begins in the Rumanian town of Constanta, with the  death of Eleanora’s mother just minutes after her own birth. You’ll follow Eleanora and her father through through her early years as she demonstrates the extraordinary powers of her young mind, learning new languages in hours as though by magic and devouring the Greek and Roman classics in the original. You’ll follow her father, Yakov, on his journey to Stamboul to sell the most valuable of his stock of carpets, with Eleanora stowed away on the ship that carries him to the imperial capital.

I have nothing but good things to say about this outstanding first novel — except for the ending, which I found abrupt and disappointing. It struck me almost as though the book’s young author couldn’t figure out how to resolve his tale and simply dropped it in the middle.


Filed under Historical Novels, Trade Fiction

6 responses to “Sheer reading pleasure: Gorgeous writing, lush detail, and a dollop of magic in a historical novel

  1. Frank Dickerson

    Hi Mal, I so enjoy your posts. It’s like you’re a lookout for good stuff to provoke thought and enrich life. Speaking of provoking and enriching, William Zinsser kindly gave me permission to share a piece I’ve attached here. I use this in my writing seminars. I know you probably already know of Zinsser’s work and reputation. The attached piece is good for anyone who yields words to create any kind of effect. Pass it on.

    Sincerely, Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D. President: The Written Voice | Narrative Fundraising | High Touch Communication Sr. Counsel: Levasis Not-for-profit Consulting

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  2. Tom Turner

    A fine story, but if you know any Turkish, it’s hard not to stumble over the incredibly sloppy rendering of Turkish words, the mis- or non- or inconsistent use of accent marks. It get’s a D- on that score, and utterly unnecessary.

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