Harper Perennial - Historical Fiction
The Oracle of Stamboul is the story of young Eleonora Cohen. Born during a fierce battle in Constanta (a city on the Black Sea), in 1877, baby Eleonora's mother only has time to utter her name before tragically dying. But the two Tartar midwives who delivered her stay to help the newly widowed father, Yacob, until the baby's aunt arrives to help. As young Eleonora grows, it quickly becomes obvious that she is a savant. Aunt and stepmother Ruxandra believes Eleonora's brilliance will only cause undue attention and prevent her from finding a husband, so she teaches the girl to keep house and strictly limits her reading material.
When Yacob must travel by boat to Stamboul to sell his surplus carpets, Eleonora stows away. Then tragedy strikes. In Stamboul, the young prodigy finds a teacher and a surrogate parent, a hidden hallway and intrigue. Her world begins to open up, yet she is still sheltered. When her abilities become known, Eleonora finds herself in the unusual position of charming a sultan. But, is being a well-known genius too much for a little girl? What will happen when Eleonora is forced to choose between a comfortable but restrictive life and her heart's desire?
Wow. What a beautiful story. Anyone who reads my blog regularly probably knows I'm not the fastest reader on the block. But, only the fact that I had to sleep kept me from reading The Oracle of Stamboul in a single day. It is absolutely magical, a tale so gloriously descriptive that I wanted to climb right into Eleonora's world. I loved Eleonora, her father, her surrogate parent (I'm being a little shifty, here -- trying not to give too much away) and appreciated the fact that there was plenty of conflict and a couple mildly villainous characters without any threat to her innocence.
Eleonora is a lovely child, level-headed and thoughtful. I loved how the two extremely kind and steady adults in her life guided her in a way that allowed her to make a crucial decision, in the end. And, of course, I loved the richness of the setting.
I was a little thrown, at first, by both the location and its history. I looked up "Constanta" and "Stamboul," assuming the two cities were probably the city once known as Constantinople and Istanbul. It was pretty late at night when I looked up the two cities, but the author's notes at least confirmed the latter. I know very little about Turkey, apart from what I was told by a friend who used to live there, and certainly next to nothing about its history. But, I found The Oracle of Stamboul was pretty easy to follow as long as I didn't try too hard to place the story in proper historical context. I just didn't know enough to fully understand the politics, although the setting was vivid and doubly easy to visualize with a little help from Google Images.
Politics and setting aside, the tale is really about Eleonora, a fish out of water so fiercely intelligent that the adults around her feel obligated to shelter her. There are some mystical touches to the story. A flock of birds stays with Eleonora wherever she goes. The Tartar midwives are led to her home at the time of her birth by various signs and claim she's been chosen to change the world, to restore it to its proper axis.
Since Eleonora is a prolific reader, it's fun to read about the many books she gobbles down. I found myself a little envious of the fictional Eleonora, wishing I could read, digest and remember a fraction of what she reads during her first 8 years of life.
An absolutely breathtaking book, highly recommended. I had a tiny bit of trouble getting into The Oracle of Stamboul, at first (for about the first 15-20 pages) because of my ignorance about the setting, but it didn't take long till I was completely sucked in and found it unbearable to set the book aside. The Oracle of Stamboul will definitely go on my list of favorites for 2011.
Many thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book!