I'm busy reviewing (at my own pace) for www.alternative-read.com. I'm also going to be the horror editor over at www.thedeepening.com (at my own pace). With all my marketing, networking, blogging and health issues, this is going to leave me little time for promoting some of the authors I've selected myself. So, as this is a blog about the writing life, here's a review of a book that taught me more about the middle-east than any history professor ever did. I'd recommend it to anyone, especially those who like historical fiction.
The Janissary Tree
By Jason Goodwin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Istanbul in the year of 1836. This mystical city, known in earlier times as Byzantium, Constantinople, even the second Rome, is brewing a revolution. You can taste it in the air. The Sultan, an aging man fond of drink and certain western ideologies, is about to issue an edict that will force the modern world upon his people. A valued collection of Napoleonic jewels has been stolen from the palace. In seemingly unrelated incidents, a young woman about to become a full member of the harem and an officer, one of four missing members of the New Guard, are found murdered. Someone has left a disturbing poem on the Janissary Tree—that infamous landmark the vanquished Old Guard once hung their enemies upon. And Russia, anticipating more turmoil, is preparing to advance on the city.
The valide, the Sultan’s mother, who has thrived in the violent world of Ottoman politics, suspects a coup is underway. Her son’s seraskier, the head of the armed forces, is only concerned with putting on a good review the day of the edict, with showing people that the backbone of the empire is unbreakable. The Sultan? He’s keeping his opinions to himself but has sent for a man named Yashim Togalu.
Yashim is called the lala, the guardian. This is a title of respect given to men who have been charged with the responsibility of caring for families and households of rich and powerful people. These men are trusted with women and children because they are all—without exception—eunuchs, men who have been castrated at an early age.
We are told that an ordinary lala is something between a butler and a housekeeper, a nanny and the head of security. But Yashim is anything but ordinary. He’s unattached, a free lance. Yet he moves through streets and palace hallways with equal and anonymous ease. An accomplished linguist, a man who knows how to gather information with quiet efficiency, and someone who truly understands the power structure of the world he inhabits, this unusual eunuch is the perfect spy.
Immerse yourself in Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree as he peels back the skin of the Ottoman onion to give us an exquisite taste of the complicated soup it was. Already an acclaimed historical author, Goodwin brings the 19th-century Turkish Empire alive in a most visceral way. When Yashim prepares stuffed mussels, I’m there. Descriptive visits to the Janissary Tree, the market district, the Soup Maker’s Guild and various other destinations make both the city and the Janissaries seem so real I begin to imagine these elite soldiers are waiting around every fascinating corner. And the people! Here is a book with a cast of characters so intriguing the last page is turned with sadness.
Jason Goodwin has written a great novel. In particular, Yashim the Eunuch helped me to experience a culture so intimately I was at once appalled, enticed and intrigued. He also managed to forever change my perception of the Turks.
I want more.
copyright © 2006 Clayton Clifford Bye
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