Publication Date: February 8, 2011
Source: Review copy provided by publisher
Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. "They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the North Star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy that their last king had given on his deathwatch." But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora's mother dies soon after the birth.
Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.
When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year-old Eleonora, unable to bear the separation, stows away in one of his trunks. On the shores of the Bosporus, in the house of her father's business partner, Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life—the imperial capital overflows with elegance, and mystery. For in the narrow streets of Stamboul—a city at the crossroads of the world—intrigue and gossip are currency, and people are not always what they seem. Eleonora's tutor, an American minister and educator, may be a spy. The kindly though elusive Moncef Bey has a past history of secret societies and political maneuvering. And what is to be made of the eccentric, charming Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, beleaguered by friend and foe alike as his unwieldy, multiethnic empire crumbles?
The Oracle of Stamboul is one of those books where the main character is not an adult, yet it isn't a young adult novel. In my opinion, I'd create a genre for it, and call it approachable literary fiction. I tend to be picky about the literary fiction I read, mainly because some of the books within the genre seem overwrought. That was not the case with The Oracle of Stamboul. Eleonora is the center of the story, and she is such a bright, beautiful character that you could place her in just about any situation and I'd want to read about her.
In comparing The Oracle to a lot of YA fiction I've read, I'd say that there are a lot of similar themes. Eleonora longs to release herself from the her restrictive aunt/step-mother's thumb. She craves attention and love from her father, so much so that when he leaves for a trip to Stamboul, she can't bare to be left behind. She also must reconcile her desires from everyone else's desires for her. Without giving too much away, I'll say that Eleonora does carve out a path for herself. The result is was an ending that was so satisfying, I couldn't help but give a little fist pump when I read it.
The city of Stamboul (now Istanbul) is more a character than a setting. The author spent considerable time in Turkey, and the attention to detail really makes the city shine. I've always been interested in Turkey, as my father traveled there quite frequently when I was a child, and it's always captured my imagination.
If The Oracle has a fault, it is the sometimes slow pacing. The passages with the Sultan passed slowly for me, as did parts of the third act. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful novel and I highly recommend it!
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