The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas – Book Review

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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18 comments to The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas – Book Review

  • I am very excited to read this book – I have this book sitting on my nightstand and I’m scheduled to review this in a couple of weeks. Thanks for your insight into it :)

  • My review of this one is up today, too. My chief issue was with the pacing. I don’t think the holes in the plot would have been as noticeable if the pace had stayed consistent throughout. It really slows down during those chapters when Eleanora isn’t speaking.

    I didn’t have a problem with the characterization as much, though I can see how others might. I’m not as smart as Eleanora, but I have always been good with languages and was reading way beyond my years as a child, so I can identify with her on that one to an extent.

    I can see this being a favorite read for an equally (in her own mind, anyway) precocious little girl.

    • I was reading waaay beyond my years too, but that scene where she went from letter sounds to memorizing and understanding complex passages in the course of a day was just too much, and none of the plot worked without the premise she was beyond brilliant, which bothered me. The pacing didn’t actually bother me, since nothing ever happened and I thought it read pretty quickly.

  • I most especially agree with your last point – I felt the whole book led up to exactly nothing. I explained away the other bits to myself as ‘magical realism’ and actually quite liked Eleanora. The story was just lacking; it never delivered on its promise.

    • I wish the storyline about the prophecy about her had been more developed, then I think I could have accepted a lot more with magical realism.

      • I really wanted the prophecy to be more developed too! So much build up was given to there being something special about Eleanora and then the story left off without ever fully realizing that. Strangely though, I found that I liked the openness of the ending but I just wanted her relationships to be more impactful to the whole of the story.

  • Sounds frustrating but interesting!

  • Well, now I’ve seen what the book was…and I won’t be reading it. But not because of your review, but because it’s not a book that I think in which I would be interested. I’ve learned I’m mostly into mysteries and have to be resigned to that fact – sigh! Oh, well, it could be worse, I could be into romance (shudder 😉 ).
    As for your review, I think sometimes you’re too nice. Just tell us what you think and don’t pull any punches. If you don’t like it, don’t try to find the silver lining. At least, that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth — which might be nothing. :)

    • Oh, if something is completely without redemption, I’m okay with say that. Most of the time not liking a book is too subjective for that and it is helpful for people with slightly different tastes to know what did work. In this case, I truly didn’t dislike it, and the review may have come across slightly more negatively than I really feel, but the issues that kept me from fully enjoying it were just too major not to discuss in detail.

      • And I think it was good that you did discuss them. One thing I like about your reviews is that you are honest, and you don’t just give glowing reviews. Of course, any book blogger worth his/her salt does the same: give honest reviews.

  • This book has such a fascinating premise. I’m disappointed that it didn’t live up to them.

  • Uh-oh. I hate it in books where everything is super-easy and it doesn’t feel like anything is happening.

    I should really just start reading this book and get it over with.

  • Julie

    I found that I felt nothing was resolved. I had such high, high hopes for this book but it fell flat for me. I didn’t even feel engaged with many of the characters.

  • I wanted more too – more color and more of the environment…more of the Sultan…just more!

  • This book sounds good despite mixed reviews of it. I think I might wait and see if my library gets a copy…

  • Janel

    Agree with your observation that the book didn’t expand on the conflict in the region and was anti-climatic with Eleanora & her advisement of the Sultan.

  • Beth F

    Too bad this wasn’t what you were expecting.