Eleanora Cohen is born on a day of omens. A flock of purple and white hoopoes take over her house in Constanta, two midwives mysteriously appear to assist in her birth, and unfortunately her mother dies, leaving her and her father alone in the world. Eleanora’s father asks his late wife’s sister, Ruxandra, to help raise the child, and so she grows up for a few years, long enough to display a precocious intelligence and to alienate her aunt with that extraordinary cleverness. When Eleanora’s father makes plans to travel to Stamboul, Eleanora decides to stow away on his ship rather than be left behind with her aunt, a decision that has unforeseen consequences.
The Oracle of Stamboul lies in that peculiar area of magical realism. It’s set in a firmly historical basis, but includes just a few touches of fantasy to keep us on our toes. Eleanora’s incredible intelligence for me might as well have been fantasy, and of course the flock of hoopoes as well as the myth surrounding Eleanora’s birth just adds to the book’s overall touch of mysticism. It’s something that I’m not always comfortable with, but which worked very well in this particular book. It’s appropriate to the slightly distant, slightly magical atmosphere that pervades the novel and Eleanora’s perception of the world around her.
Eleanora herself I found immensely appealing. Despite her cleverness, she has a fragility about her that makes it clear she’s just a girl trying to cope in the wider world. One incident earlier in the book displayed this perfectly for me; in a shop with her aunt, Eleanora discovers an error in their bill and says so quite loudly. She thinks she’s saving money, but her aunt hustles her out of the shop, scolds her, and puts a stop to her lessons. She doesn’t understand the world the way adults do, not yet, and it’s this alternating combination of intelligence and vulnerability which make her such an appealing heroine.
The story itself wasn’t quite as strong as I’d expected. While it goes along smoothly, the climax wasn’t what I’d hoped it to be, and to some extent that soured my reaction to the rest of the book. I felt slightly misled by the cover copy, which indicated that Eleanora would have a great impact on the Ottoman Empire – I think I was expecting more of an alternate history than I actually got. I don’t know very much about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and personally I would have liked more. I didn’t feel as solidly grounded in the period as I would ideally have done. Perhaps the details would have weighed the book down for others, but not for me – I kept wanting to know more, looking up things on Wikipedia to try and connect the dots. The book had the right atmosphere and a good story, but lacked the historical substance and basis for me to really fall in love with it. For someone who knows more about this period and place in history, this particular concern would be irrelevant, but I genuinely was made curious by the story and characters. I wanted more from not only the history, but from the story itself.
Nevertheless, The Oracle of Stamboul was a thoughtful, especially well-written piece of historical fiction, with just the right touch of magic to set it apart from its fellows. Recommended.
Want to read others’ reviews? Check out a few other stops on this TLC book tour:
Tuesday, February 8th: The Bodacious Pen
Tuesday, February 8th: The Reading Date
Tuesday, February 8th: Katie’s Nesting Spot
Wednesday, February 9th: Bibliophibian
Thursday, February 10th: One Girl Collecting
Thursday, February 10th: Confessions of a Rambling Mind
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.