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Another book in my quest to know more about Istanbul and its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world.

This book was particularly welcomed because so far I’ve focused on Ottoman Constantinople and know very little about what happened before, especially the Crusades that weakened the Byzantine Empire and opened the way to the 1453 Fall. So even if the plot of The Sheen… didn’t completely work for me, the historical setting alone was worth the 19 hours of audiobook.

The story opens in 1273, almost seventy years after the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantine Empire stands, but is still suffering the consequences of the loot. The Crusaders took almost all religious icons to Rome and depleted Constantinople is no longer a place of pilgrimage.

In trying to prevent another (and likely permanent) invasion, Emperor Michael Palaeologus is trying to unite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Many old families, however, see this agreement as the beginning of the end for Byzantium, and vow to prevent it.

It’s this nest of intrigue and conspiracy that welcomes Anna Zarides. She traveled to Constantinople to clear the name of her twin brother Justinian, exiled to Jerusalem for murdering a prominent political figure. In order to move freely in the city and among its noble houses, Anna disguises herself as Anastasius, a eunuch who sells his services as a skilled physician.

The promise of a murder mystery never really delivers and the pace is surprisingly slow for a novel so filled with schemes and political manoeuvring. I got left with the feeling that Anne Perry tried to go all Byzantine (pun intended) with the story, making it too complex, devious and all-encompassing. What remained were way too many subplots, including the heritage of Anna’s romantic interest, the machinations of the two Papal ambassadors, the doubts of the Emperor, and the evil doings of Anna’s most powerful patron, the villain-you-love-to-hate Zoe Chrysaphes.

So while each chapter (and even sections within them) alternates between the different characters, the plot that started as a murder investigation suddenly zooms out and becomes focused on the fight for Constantinople’s soul. All this complimented by long descriptions of Anna’s medical cases. Couldn’t help thinking that Anne Perry could have made three or four more successful novels out of this one.

I did find myself thinking all too often “Wait, who are you and how do you related to the plot?” or “Enough with the ointments!”, but one of my main goals was to learn more about this period, and Anne Perry clearly did her homework. She was also very successful in recreating the feeling of nostalgia for a time of beauty and culture that was disappearing along with the Byzantine Empire.

It seems Anne Perry is famous for her Victorian novels, but I’d never heard of her before. Have you? Any recommendations?

Conquest Of Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204

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Other thoughts: The Printed Page, The Romantic Armchair Traveler (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul

This was my first Orhan Pamuk and I’m sure it’s very clever, but not the kind of clever I can appreciate. I had the same feeling with If on A Winter’s Night a Traveler: I knew something quite intellectual was happening, but my brain wasn’t interested enough to make the effort.

The White Castle starts off with an entrancing premise – a 17th-century Venetian student doctor is captured by Ottoman pirates and taken to Constantinople as a slave. He is sold to Hoja, a scholar, with whom our main character (we never know his name) bears a close physical resemblance. Almost from the start the master demands that his slave tells him everything about his life and teaches him all he knows.

After a while the Sultan starts noticing Hoja’s astrological predictions, and makes him the Imperial Astrologer. He also asks him to build a giant weapon, which they plan to use to take the White Castle. But that’s not the most important part of the story. Over the years, and as they work closely together, master and slave begin having conversations about what makes a person who they are. They look so alike that, if they were to exchange knowledge of each others’ history and secrets, could they actually exchange identities? So the slave starts to fear that his master will kill him and take over his former life in Venice.

The whole book is told in the first person, but almost always using indirect speech (grammar people, is that the right way to describe it?). A direct transcription of something being said is very rare and short, although their conversations are at the core of the story. The narrator is always describing what’s happening without letting people talk for themselves:

Towards morning, in order to calm his nerves, he recited to me once more this piece of rhetoric about the logic of the turning of the planets but this time he recited it backwards, like an incantation. Loading our instruments on a wagon he borrowed, he left for the pasha’s mansion.

This made it grindingly monotonous and dry. Like I was listening to a dubbed movie where all the characters are played by one person with the same tone of voice. I found myself alienated from the story.

It’s pretty unusual that a historical novel set in Constantinople/Istanbul doesn’t make a strong impression of time and place. Unfortunately, The White Castle left me with no lasting images, no recollection of the narrator’s day-to-day life, no memory of the city’s sights, sounds or smells, clever descriptions, one-liners or clever figure of speech. Thinking back, I only recall an endless chain of sentences with little emotional value.

Ultimately, the book felt like an excuse to discuss existentialism, identity and the master-slave dialectic. I don’t mind philosophy in my novels, but if the story and setting are so secondary, I’d rather be reading non-fiction.

I’m not ready to give Pamuk a pass yet, I love Istanbul too much and heard too many good things about My Name is Red.

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Other thoughts: another cookie crumbles, Culture Vulture, A Life in Fiction (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.
Alphonse de Lamartine

We fell in love with the Istanbul from the moment we entered its outskirts on a bus from Bulgaria. The layers of civilizations, the meeting-point of cultures, the insane round-the-clock movement, the salty ayrans, the mystery of the inner rooms of the Topkapi Palace, but most of all, we fell in love with the light. It’s the kind of light I only remember seeing in my Lisbon. Very difficult to describe, but someone told me it has a scientific explanation, something to do with the latitude, longitude and proximity of large bodies of water. On and off we play with the possibility of moving there for a while (unlikely with our jobs), but all the same we’re planning to return in 2011 to explore it further.

From that first visit I started to read fiction set in Istanbul and its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, so when Joanna and I decided to create the “One, Two, Theme Challenge” I instantly knew what my top-theme would be.

After some research and going through my TBR I finally decided on a reading list, which turned out to be a liiiitle beyond the needed 6 books. Other books might be added along the way, so please feel free to give me more suggestions, especially on modern history (I know I have a knowledge-gap there) and graphic novels.

(first stab at)
A Reading List for “One, Two, Theme” Challenge
Theme 6: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul

NON-FICTION

  • Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World by Colin Wells (TBR)
  • Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin (TBR)
  • Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin (TBR)
  • Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

FICTION

  • The Sultan’s Seal (Kamil Pasha, #1) by Jenny White
  • The Abyssinian Proof (Kamil Pasha, #2) by Jenny White (TBR)
  • Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières (TBR)
  • My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (TBR)
  • Baudolino by Umberto Eco (TBR audiobook)
  • The Flea Palace by Elif Şafak
  • Bliss: A Novel by Zülfü Livaneli

Any further suggestions welcome!