Sixteenth-century sexual politics inside the Ottoman sultan's harem come to life as Hickman (Courtesans) takes her fascination with fallen women into the fictional realm with this historical novel featuring exotic locales and erotic situations. Linking past and present heroines, the story follows Oxford researcher Elizabeth Staveley as she uncovers the 400-year-old story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain's daughter engaged to merchant-turned-diplomat Paul Pindar when she's lost in a shipwreck. Celia doesn't drown, of course. She becomes a concubine-in-training in Constantinople, where Paul serves as secretary to the British Embassy. When the embassy sends a gift to the sultan (a ship made of spun sugar), Paul finds out that Celia is alive and well. Meanwhile, the sultan's chief black eunuch has been poisoned and as his favorite concubine battles for supremacy with his mother, both women draw Celia into their intrigues. Despite all this, the book never transforms into a literary tour-de-force (like A.S. Byatt's Possession), partly because the author is trying to balance too many story lines. Hickman creates richly described imaginative moments, but like Celia's early encounters with the sultan, the excitement is never consummated. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Aviary Gateby Katie Hickman, Josephine Bailey (Narrated by)
Constantinople, 1599. Paul Pindar, a secretary to the English ambassador, thinks he has lost his love, Celia, in a shipwreck. Now, two years later, clues begin to emerge that she may be hidden among the ranks of the slaves in the Sultan's harem. But how can he be sure? And can they be reunited? With a secret rebellion rising within the Sultan's palace, danger
Constantinople, 1599. Paul Pindar, a secretary to the English ambassador, thinks he has lost his love, Celia, in a shipwreck. Now, two years later, clues begin to emerge that she may be hidden among the ranks of the slaves in the Sultan's harem. But how can he be sure? And can they be reunited? With a secret rebellion rising within the Sultan's palace, danger surrounds the lovers. A lush, ancient tale of treacherous secrets, forbidden love, and murder in the Ottoman palace,The Aviary Gate is exotic historical fiction at its very best.
In 16th-century Constantinople, the Aviary Gate separated the harem of Topkapi from the palace courtyard, where a large and marvelous clockwork was placed by English diplomats as their gift to the Ottoman sultan. This historical event of 1599 provides background for the bittersweet romance between a captured English woman hidden in the sultan's harem and an English merchant gentleman hopeful of winning trading favors in Turkey. An additional modern plotline follows academic scholar Elizabeth through Istanbul in her search for the fate of Celia Lamprey, who was thought to have drowned at sea. Languorous and filled with vivid, dreamlike images, Hickman's novel also features the dual plotting of modern and historical that is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's Possession. Hickman, an English writer of several successful popular histories and travel books (Courtesans), realistically depicts the steamy atmosphere of harem politics, or "women's survival strategies," as the author remarks in her notes. The details regarding the sexual lives of the world's most famous kept women are explicit but delicately described. Recommended for all historical fiction collections.
Mary K. Bird-Guilliams
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Read an Excerpt
The Aviary Gate A Novel
By KATIE HICKMAN BLOOMSBURY
Copyright © 2008 Katie Hickman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Constantinople, 31 August 1599
'Are they dead?'
'The girl, yes.'
A slim figure, two thin gold chains just visible on delicate ankles, lay sprawled face down amongst the cushions on the floor.
The Valide Sultan's kira, the Jewess Esperanza Malchi, brought her lantern a little closer to the face of the second body, spreadeagled clumsily on the divan. From the pocket in her robe she brought out a small jewelled mirror and held it close to the nostrils. An almost imperceptible film clouded the surface of the glass. 'No, Majesty. Not yet.'
In the shadows by the doorway to the little bedchamber, Safiye, the Valide Sultan, the mother of God's Shadow Upon Earth, drew her veil a little closer round her shoulders, shivering despite the closeness of the night. On her finger an emerald the size of a pigeon's egg, briefly catching the light from Esperanza's lantern, glittered like a cat's eye. 'But it cannot be long. What do you think?'
'It won't be long, Majesty. Shall I send for the physician?'
'No!' the reply was sharp. 'No physician. Not yet.'
They turned towards the dying figure on the divan, a massive mound of soft black flesh. On the floor beside the divan was an upturned tray, its contentsspewed across the floor. Thin stains of some dark liquid, food or vomit, glimmered like spiders' threads amongst the cushions. Another thin black stain trickled from one ear.
'Yes, Majesty.' Esperanza gave a curt nod. 'Look ...' she bent down and picked something up from amongst the broken porcelain.
'I'm not sure. A child's toy, I think ... a ship.'
'It doesn't look like a toy.'
Esperanza peered at the object in her hands more closely, and as she did so a piece came away in her fingers. 'No, not a toy,' she said, consideringly. 'A sweetmeat, made of sugar.' She made as if to bite off a piece.
'Don't taste it!' Safiye almost knocked the sugar toy from her hand. 'I'll take it, Esperanza. Give it to me ...'
Behind the divan was an open window which gave on to a green and white tiled corridor where jasmine grew in pots. In the cloistered sweetness of the night, suddenly, there was a noise.
'Quick, the lamp.'
Esperanza damped down her lantern. For a few moments the women stood without moving.
'A cat, Majesty.' Safiye's handmaid, veiled like her mistress so that Esperanza could not see her face, now spoke softly from the darkness behind them.
'What time is it, Gulbahar?'
'Just a few hours till daybreak, Majesty.'
Outside the window a sliver of night sky was visible in the space above the corridor's high walls. Now the clouds parted and a flood of moonlight, brighter by far than Esperanza's lantern, filled the room. On the walls of the little bedchamber the tiles seemed to shiver and tremble, silver-blue and silver-green, like water in a moon-viewing pool. Motionless beneath them the body, naked except for the thinnest wrapping of white muslin around the loins, was illuminated too. Safiye could now make out its contours. It was a woman's body, soft and almost hairless: the voluptuously naked hips, pendulous breasts, nipples the colour of molasses. A monumental sculpture of flesh. The skin, by day so shiny and black, now had a dusty matt look to it, as if the poison had sucked out all its light. And at the corners of the lips, which fanned out hideously fat and red as hibiscus flowers, bubbled flecks of foam.
'Majesty ...' The Jewess's eyes flickered nervously towards Safiye. 'Tell us what to do, Majesty,' she urged.
But Safiye seemed not to hear her. She took a step forwards into the room. 'Little Nightingale, my old friend ...' The words were no more than a whisper.
The heavy thighs were splayed out on the cushions, as unmindful of modesty as a woman in childbirth. The cat, which had been nosing around the fallen debris on the floor, now sprang up on to the divan. The movement caused some of the thin muslin covering to come awry, exposing the parts beneath. Esperanza made as if to cover them again, but the Valide Sultan, with a quick movement of her hand, stayed her. 'No. Let me look. I want to look.'
She took another step into the room. From her handmaid Gulbahar came a small muffled sound, an almost imperceptible sigh. Like the rest of the body, the groin was completely hairless. Between the plumpness of the thighs, where the parts should have been, there was nothing. In their place was an empty space: a single angry scar, sinewed and scorched as if by a burn, where a single slice of the knife had once, in some unimaginably far-distant moment of his unimaginably long life, sliced off the penis and testicles of Hassan Aga, chief of the Valide Sultan's black eunuchs.
Floating on a cloud of pain, Hassan Aga, Little Nightingale, acknowledged somewhere in his slipping consciousness that the Valide Sultan was near. The whispers of the women were confused, no more than a buzzing in his ears, but the smell of her - the myrrh and ambergris with which she perfumed her inner robes, the skin of her beautiful thighs, her belly and her forbidden sex - he could never mistake that scent, not even now, not even on his deathbed.
He drifted again. The pain that had torn like a demon at his guts and his bowels had subsided, as though his body had been tortured beyond sensation. Drifting, now, drifting. Was he awake or did he simply dream? Pain, he had known pain before. The picture of a boy came before his eyes. A small boy but sturdy, even then, with a furze of close-cropped hair like a black cap pulled down unusually low over his brow. Somewhere in this dream he could hear the sound of a woman's voice screaming, and then a man's voice - his father? But how could this be? Hassan Aga, Chief Black Eunuch, had no parents. Or perhaps he had once, in that other life long ago, when he was still whole.
As he drifted, still on the edge of consciousness, other pictures came and went, spinning on the outgoing tide of his mind. In front of him now there was a horizon, a wide blue horizon. The boy with the close-cropped hair was walking, a journey that had no end, walking on and on. Sometimes, to keep his spirits up, he sang to himself, but mostly it was just walking and walking, through forests and jungles, across rivers and open plains. Once, in the night, a lion had roared. Another time there had been a flock of birds, bright blue and red, exploding like a burst of fireworks out of the forest depths.
Were there others with him? Yes, many others, most of them children like himself, all of them shackled together at the feet and the neck. They stumbled often, and some were left where they fell. He tried to put a hand to his throat, but there was no longer any sensation in his limbs at all. Where were his arms and legs? Where, after all, was his throat? A distant curiosity came upon him, and then a feeling of dislocation so vast and vertiginous, as if all the different parts of him were spread out, as far away from one another as the moon and the stars.
But he was not afraid. He had had that feeling before somewhere. Sand. Something to do with sand. The walking had stopped and there was a new horizon before him now, relentless and golden. It had made his eyes ache to look at it.
It was night-time when they came for him, and cool. There was a hut, and the men inside had given him something to drink which he had spat out at first, but they persisted. Had he sung for them? He remembered the distant glitter of their eyes as they squatted there beside the fire, and the way his head spun, and the bad taste in his mouth. He was glad when they laid him down beside the fire. Then there was a sound of metal on stone, and a sensation of great heat. A man's hand, quite gentle, had pulled his shift up to above his waist, exposing his genitals. They gave him a piece of wood to bite on, but still he did not understand what was happening to him.
'There are three ways.' There was a man speaking now who was different from the rest. His head was wound about with a turban of twisted cloth as was the custom of the men from the northern sandlands. 'In the first two the testicles can either be crushed or removed completely. The penis remains, but the subject can never be fertile after this. There is great pain, and some risk of infection, but most survive - especially the young ones.' The third way involves severing all the genitals.' Dimly the boy was aware of the man staring down into his face. 'There is far greater risk, of course - you may lose your cargo altogether - but the demand for such as these is very great. Especially if they are ugly ... and, hew!' he laughed softly to himself, 'this one's as ugly as a hippopotamus.'
'What are the chances?' The man who had pulled up the boy's shift spoke.
'If the practitioner is careless, very few survive this third way. If the pain does not craze them, then the fever that comes after kills them. And if the fever does not kill them, then there is a danger that their parts will close up altogether as the wound heals. The practitioner must contrive to keep one tube open, the tube down which the patient's urine can pass. For if this is not well attended to, then there is no hope, and death will surely follow. The worst and most painful death of all. In my case however, for I am very skilled in this art, the odds are good: about half my patients survive. And in this case ...' once again the boy was aware of a turbaned face peering down at him, 'well, he looks strong enough to me. You'll sell him to the harem of the Grand Signor himself, I am sure of it.'
There was some conferring amongst the men around the fire, and then the first one, who seemed to be the chief amongst them, spoke again.
'Our cargo is valuable. We have come too far - three thousand leagues or more from the forests of the great river itself - and we have already lost too many of our cargo on the journey to take such a risk. In Alexandria, where we are heading, we will easily sell the ones who remain as slaves, and our profit is assured. But it is as you say: a great fortune is to be had for one of this kind. Especially, in these days, for a boy from these lands. Just one good one, they say, will fetch as much again as all the others. The word in the markets, in Alexandria and Cairo, is that the Ottoman lords prefer them now to the white eunuchs who come from the easternmost mountains of the Great Turk's empire. These black eunuchs are affordable only by the very richest harems in the empire. Luxury goods, you might say, like the ostrich feathers, gold dust, saffron and ivory that many of the caravans crossing these sands bring with them. We will take a chance on just one: let it be this boy, seeing, as you say, he looks strong and likely to survive. We will try your skill, Copt, this once.'
'The singing boy then. So be it.' The turbaned man nodded his approval. 'You are a true merchant, Massouf Bhai. I will need boiling oil to cauterise the wound,' he added matter-of-factly. 'And four of your strongest people to hold the boy down. The pain gives them the strength of ten men.'
Nearly forty years later, in the cool and scented Bosphorous night, the naked body of Hassan Aga stirred slightly, his fingers splaying and fluttering feebly against the cushions on the divan like monstrous moths. Slowly, his mind sank back into the past again.
It was still night. When it was over they had dug a hole, at the Copt's behest, in the sand just behind the hut. It was a narrow hole, but deep; just wide enough for the boy to be buried in it upright up to his neck, so that only his head was visible. Then the men went away and left him there. The boy had no memory of this, only of regaining consciousness some time afterwards with a great cool weight of sand all around him, and the sensation that his arms and legs had been bound as tightly to his body as if he had been trussed up by a giant spider.
How long had they left him, buried alive, in that hole? Five days ... a week? The first few days, when the fever took hold of him, as it did almost immediately, he did not notice time passing. Despite the raging heat during the day, with a sun that seemed to make the very blood boil in his eardrums, his teeth chattered and rattled. And between his legs a pain so searing that bitter bile rose in his gorge. But worse than this was his thirst, a terrible, all-consuming thirst that obsessed and tormented him. When he cried out for water his voice, no stronger now than a kitten's, reached the ears of no one.
Once, he woke to find the turbaned man, the one they called the Copt, looking down at him. He had brought with him the chief of the slave masters, a man as black as night in a long, pale blue robe.
'The fever has broken?'
The Copt nodded. 'It is as I said: the boy is strong.'
'Then I can have my cargo?'
'Patience, Massouf Bhai, the fever has broken, but the wound must heal, and heal well. If you want your cargo whole, you must allow the sand to do its work. He must not be moved yet.'
"Water ...' Had he spoken? The boy's lips were so dry they cracked and bled at the slightest effort at speech. His tongue was so swollen it almost choked him. But the two men had already moved away.
It was that night that the girl came to him for the first time. He did not see her at first, but woke instead from a fitful half-sleep to feel a coolness against his brow and on his lips. At her touch a cry of pain, tinder dry, rose in his swollen gorge. But no sound came. The dampness of the cloth seared him like a knife.
A form, as insubstantial as a ghost, knelt beside him on the sand.
'Water ...' with an effort he moved his lips around the word.
'No, I cannot.' The boy blinked his eyes, and saw the broad smooth face of a small girl. 'You must not drink, not yet. Heal first, then drink.'
She was not one of the ones from his own journey here, of that he was reasonably sure, but the tones of her voice were familiar, and he thought that she, too, must be from the forests beyond the great river. The boy's eyes pricked, but they were too dry now even for tears.
The girl was now gently working around his face with a cloth. Carefully she brushed the sand from his eyelids, his nostrils, his ears, but when she tried to touch his lips again he drew back from her almost violently, and an inarticulate rasp, like the cawing of a crow, broke from him.
'Shh!' She held her finger to her lips, and in the darkness he saw the whites of her eyes gleam. Then she pressed her mouth to his ear. 'I will come back.'
She gathered the thin folds of her shift around her, and the boy watched as her small form disappeared again into the night. Her breath was still warm against his cheek.
When she came back she was carrying a small bottle in one hand. She crouched down beside him, and again put her lips to his ear. 'They use this oil for cooking. It will not hurt you."
She dipped a small finger in the oil and dabbed it tentatively on his upper lip. Although the boy flinched, he did not cry out as before.
After that he waited for her every night, and every night she came to wash away the sand from his face with her cool cloth, and to anoint his lips with oil. Although she steadfastly refused to give him water - saying that if she did so he would not heal - she brought him small slices of gourd and cucumber, hidden in the pockets of her robe. These she managed to slip between his lips, and he was able to hold them there, soothing and softening his swollen tongue. The two children did not speak to one another, but sometimes after she was finished the girl would sit beside him and sing. And since they had robbed him of his own voice, he would listen to her with rapture, looking up at the stars, vast and brilliant, turning above them in the desert sky.
As they had thought, the boy was strong and he survived. They treated him better after they pulled him from the sand. They gave him a new robe, green with a white stripe, and a cloth to wind around his head, and he was made to understand that he would no longer be shackled with the rest, but would ride up behind the slave master on his camel, as befitted the most valuable of their goods. His wound had healed neatly and, although it was very tender still, his tube had not scarred over. The Copt gave him a thin hollow silver quill and showed him how to insert it inside his own body. 'When you want to piss, you put it in like this, see?'
Excerpted from The Aviary Gate by KATIE HICKMAN
Copyright © 2008 by Katie Hickman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Katie Hickman is the author of five books, including two bestselling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia.
British actress and narrator Josephine Bailey has won ten AudioFile Earphones Awards and a prestigious Audie Award, and Publishers Weekly named her Best Female Narrator in 2002.
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I ended up reading this book after reading the sequel, The Pindar Diamond. As it turns out, I enjoyed the second book a bit more. In this story, we get the start of Celia and Annetta's lives in the harem of the Sultan after their shipwreck, as well as a peek into the life of Elizabeth, an English philosophy student in modern times who is researching the life of Celia. When the story was following Celia and Annetta and their lives in the harem, it was compelling, interesting, and fast paced. I couldn't get enough about their exotic lives and the inner workings of the harem women. However, the chapters about Elizabeth were an annoying interruption. I didn't care about her character, in fact, she annoyed me. Mostly she was around to give us historical clues about what may have happened to Celia, and then there was some boring story about Elizabeth's love life. I'm glad that Elizabeth's narrative didn't continue into the second book. Overall, it was a good read, if you ignore the few chapters that focus on Elizabeth.
Kitschy stereotypes aside, this book was a good read. Entertaining and filled with intrigue, while it didn't leave a WHOLE lot to the imagination, it certainly filled a weekend.
The Aviary Gate is a story of two romances. One takes place in ancient Constantinople, the other takes place in present day Istanbul Elizabeth Staveley is our modern day heroine who stumbles across part of a letter detailing the story of Celia Lamprey, a young woman who was captured and sold into slavery. The story alternates between Elizabeth's trip to Istanbul (taken to further research Celia's story), and Celia's adventures in the sultan's harem in Constantinople. Overall I found both stories very interesting and entertaining.
I have never read a book that alternately held my interest and bored me at the same time, until this story. There are many, many side stories and each one interesting. There are also many characters, each with story, and at times I lost track of who was who and how did this person fit in. Toward the end I wanted the story to end, even though I did want to know how it ended. For me this was a very interesting, original story line that could have been a favorite, but it was ruined for me by too many unnecessary long narratives.
the start of book was ok and then the history and the story behind it was what held my attend.... the past part of the book the present was somewhat interesting and boring at same time.