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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.