This novel takes us into the life of Eleanora Cohen, an 8-year-old orphan, near the end of the Ottoman Empire (1885). Eleanora is a savant, fluent in seven languages, with an amazing ability to decipher code. She also becomes an advisor to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Servant to the Holy Cities, Caliph of Islam, Commander of the Faithful, Supreme Padishah of Various Realms, His Excellency Abdulhamid II. (really, those are all of his titles!)
On the day Eleanora was born in Constanta, the Third Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry passed by on their way to Plevin to fight against General Osman Pasha and decided to raid Constanta on the way there. Her mother Leah was attended by two Tartar midwives who came due to signs of a prophecy that the last King foretold on his deathwatch. When Leah died soon after Eleanora's birth, the midwives, including a Mrs. Damakan, stayed on for a while to help take care of the new baby, until Ruxandra, Leah's spinster sister, was able to make the journey. Yakob and Ruxandra married for convenience soon after.
Credit: Animalou blog
The day of Eleanora's birth was also heralded with the arrival of a flock of hoopoes in an unusual coloration including purple. These birds are Eleanora's "flock" and followed her from place to place.
When Eleanora finds herself the ward of kindly Moncef Bey, an old friend of her father's, she is pulled into the intrigues of the Empire and called upon for an audience with the Sultan, which leads to scandalous whispers about him accepting advice from a child.
This novel was a pleasure to read, with lovely, descriptive passages and the story of an extraordinary girl during extraordinary times. I could almost feel and smell the sights and smells of Stamboul as I read. Eleanora's intelligence and gift of communication with animals were something that Ruxandra wanted to hide out of fear for their consequences, so her father took up her outside education, and Ruxandra continued with her household education (cleaning, cooking, ironing). With a mystical feel and a leisurely pace, the reader is swept into this foreign place and time, with shifting alliances and pieces of the Ottoman Empire being carved up and taken or conceded to others.
For me, knowing more about the history would have helped, as the details on some of the political alliances and conflicts were fuzzy and rather vague. The prophecy:
"...the promise that a young girl would come, to push against the tides of history and put the world right again on its axis. There would be signs of her birth. A sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North Star in alignment with the moon, and two of our own. From these signs, he said, we would know she was truly the one."
is also rather vague, and I'm not certain it was actually fulfilled. For me, the ending didn't live up to the rest of the novel; it was also vague and rather disappointing. I can only think that there must be a sequel planned to tie up all of the ends that were left dangling here.
All in all, a lushly written novel that draws the reader in but doesn't provide enough in the way of answers to many of the central characters and intrigues.
They began that very morning with the first reader of Ruxandra's youth, a small green book in surprisingly good condition. By lunch, Eleanora had mastered the alphabet, the special shape of each letter and the various sounds it could make in different situations. By dinner, she was piecing together sentences. And that evening, she memorized her first lesson, a discourse on the habits of crocodiles.
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 shopkeepers in the produce marker. Summer could be found in the sticky smell of cherry sherbet, in roast squat, and in rotting loquats.
Writing: 5 out of 5 stars
Plot: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Characters: 3 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion: 3.5 out 5 stars
BOOK RATING: 3.75 out of 5 starsshow more
by Julie Smith