The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins
In1877, the Ottoman Empire was under severe external pressure, losing territories to Russia, among other things. It was into this environment that Eleonora Cohen was born, a young Jewish girl. Her birth, at the same time of the sacking of Constanta by the Cossacks, brought her into a chaotic world, while at the same time removing her mother from it. Still, Eleonora thrived, particularly in the academic realm, gaining the ability to read, understand, and memorize long passages of text on the same day she learned her letter sounds. At around eight years old, a combination of forces brings Eleonora to the household of wealthy resident of Stamboul, Moncef Bey. There she becomes unwittingly enmeshed in the political intrigue surrounding the capital city at the time, and her amazing proficiency with language, languages, and ciphers comes to the attention of the Sultan himself.
Michael David Lukas has chosen what should be a very interesting topic for his debut novel. I love the idea of seeing an empire limping towards death through the eyes of a young girl. Unfortunately, I was less than enamored with the execution. Lukas’s prose is perfectly good, but I found the plotting and characterization to be lacking. All of the characters were flat. The majority of the attention in the novel is given to Eleanora, but the reader is granted remarkably little insight into her emotional world, and the revelations that are expressed seem not at all to come from a child of eight or nine. Her remarkable talents, too, were simply a little too remarkable. I can accept that a savant child of 8 or 9 might be able to read multiple languages, but the deciphering of codes at a glance without training and the aforementioned initial literacy development in her native language were a bit beyond the pale. The flock of hoopoes that followed her wherever she went served only as a distraction, because it wasn’t explored fully enough to serve as good characterization.
The main issue I have with the plotting is that everything was far too facile. Certain events took place, the there was never a feel of anything truly happening, no conflict was ever particularly worked through and resolved. Even Eleanora’s refusal to speak for many months was brought to a close in a moment of unthinking confusion. So it goes throughout the entire book. This lack of conflict also indicates a lack of character growth, which feeds into my earlier objection about characterization. Also, Eleonora’s actual time as advisor to the Sultan and Oracle of Stamboul is surprisingly brief, leaving the feel that the rest of the book was a large amount of setup for a plotline that never fully panned out.
Still, even with all of these issues, I would not say that I disliked The Oracle of Stamboul. It was a fairly engaging book – helped along primarily by Lukas’s prose style – and was set against an interesting backdrop. However, the best I can do is recommend it as as quick read when you don’t feel like getting too deep into the mechanics of what does or does not make a book work.
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