This the sort of book to be read for sheer enjoyment. I've shelved it as YA (although it may not have been intended as such) partly because of its very young protagonist and because it's a bit of charming fantasy (tiny echoes of Harry Potter). It's lightweight material but written with great literary skill. Richly evocative similes and metaphors abound, further enriched by a palpable sense of place and time — the exotic and almost mythical city on the Bosporus, set in the late 19th century during the last days of the declining Ottoman Empire.
Some readers have complained about a lack of credibility; who cares? This is just gentle, harmless entertainment; if the whole thing seemed at all real, it would lose much of its charm. Above all, it's a welcome respite from the woes of our day, as we are beset by dreadfully serious matters, most of which none of us can do much about.
As a debut novel, it should be applauded. Lukas is a young writer of great promise.
Eleanora Cohen is an incredibly precocious Romanian girl who stows away to Istanbul where her mystical qualities really start to emerge. There’s a fair amount of magical realism in the book, most notably the flock of white and purple birds that follows Eleanora everywhere she goes. The book is set against the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, with Sultan Abdulhamid and his court being important characters in the novel. A lot of questions are left unanswered at the end of the book, and characters’ motivations and allegiances are never really known. The book is beautifully written and Eleanora certainly is a fascinating character.
I think perhaps that Michael Luka, the author of “The Oracle of Stamboul” might be the king of the simile. For example: “Hoopoes covered the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church.” Or “ At one point, in what might have been a dream, a deer glanced past her window, its eyes reflecting some hidden luminosity like a string of lighthouses multiplied along the shore. Or “The morning pressed its face to the small window above the sink like a beggar”. This is Mr. Luka‘s debut novel and it is so beautifully written that you almost don’t care about the plot. But not quite. Because you fall in love with Eleonora Cohen, her magical world elegantly and concisely told in quite the manner she, of a precocious 8 year old, might understand it. You are drawn into her story, her sorrows, her triumphs, her dawning understanding. If I had any complaints it would be that the book just ends, and there you are, as if you have been abruptly woken from a most delightful dream that flies away and now will never be finished.
I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the writing style throughout, and the characters were very interesting. However, the plot felt a bit lacking, the repeated references to an imaginary literary work became frustrating, and the ending was just so disappointing ("that's it?!"). Not bad, but not great either.
The Oracle of Stamboul is a magical foray into the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, with 8-year-old Eleonora Cohen providing much of its whimsy and charm.
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