The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman
The Sultan's harem, Constantinople, 1599. One of the major eunuchs lies dying – his mind drifting back through his poisoned pain to the days when he was created, as it were. You may well spend many mental exertions on working out who has tried to kill him – indeed the book would be a complete waste of time if you didn't – for there any many people in the harem with malicious intent, evil stories to tell and finish off; everyone out of necessity has changed their name, and some people aren't even supposed to be there at all.
|The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman
|Category: Historical Fiction
|Reviewer: John Lloyd
|Summary: A girl trapped in a Turkish harem, and the diplomats after her rescue; a eunuch struggling to stay alive; a whole mishmash of mystery and romance over the centuries combine in a very light-weight if well-researched story. The feminine bent is noticeable, as is the lack of great entertainment.
|Date: February 2009
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
Elsewhere some English trade ambassadors – diplomats, but with big business interests more at heart – are overlooking the city, waiting anxiously. An immense gift to the Sultan has suffered on the voyage to Asia, and needs mending before a grandiloquent reveal can be done. This will thrust their interests way ahead of their French and Venetian rivals; but they also have more on their minds – the rescue of someone who, in a tired-in-Shakespeare's-day plot device, is one of those people not intended to be in the harem.
And in modern-day Oxford, a plot disappointingly heavy on exposition and incredibly clunky romance, will add to and intertwine with the 16th century love and mystery stories.
The main thriller side of things however does remain that set in the well-portrayed world of the House of Felicity – and it's all made harder by the setting. Consider how nearly everybody in the story is female, and then try the old cherchez la femme rule! This side to the book is the main selling point for sure.
Also of note is the difference in style between the claustrophobic, dark, interior world of the harem and the modern days, with the consistent weather reports, openness and expanding horizons of that strand.
However there is a great feeling that this is all designed to be one of those books that reading groups relish. The gentle-gentle thriller side of things, a bit of exotic sexuality, a definitively strange setting, and a centuries-old romance revisited, with the modern day life only making the past sections even more alien.
And there are flaws on all sides. The setting of the harem is well done, but the detail of the life there shows its research far too clunkily – as do the cameos from the Arabic astronomer. Only occasionally does either side break from an average level of interest and entertainment, and the slipping from past to present and back should have added more than it does.
There are things to note on the positive side, however. You might not credit before the start how small the Sultan's role would be, with the power behind the throne that is his mother much more to the fore, and the spirit of her character imbuing the institution so finely. However while talking about characterisation, can we forgive the lumpen feeling that is there when we are without the louche Carew? Similarly, it is obvious how the gender of the audience is expected to divide – all the major male characters in the book do what they do for love, the rest are very thinly drawn, and it is down to the females to solve all the mysteries, or provide them for the future world to revisit.
It is good to see in a historical novel like this how many people among the dramatis personae are borrowed from real life, and there is on the whole a suitably high level of reality to the book. It is just that the amount of research and background thinking the author has given to the book should create something much better than this. The modern love story is the biggest disappointment, in a book that intends to sweep one of one's feet and immerse us in a thrillingly taut thriller mystery with romantic asides.
I never felt like sweeping it into the bin, and I admit I admired the rush and joy of the conclusions, peppered as they were by the more poignant poised pauses, but on the whole I could not recommend the book with any honesty. I would still like to thank Bloomsbury for sending a copy to the Bookbag to review – I am sure they have a hit on their hands, but a lightweight one. I can imagine those who pick books undemandingly in herds – and subsequently decorate charity shops across the land just months later – finding much in this slight saga, which definitely was not for me.
If this type of book does appeal to you then we can recommend Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott.
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