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The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel

The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel

3.8 29
by Michael David Lukas

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Set in the heart of the exotic Ottoman Empire during the first years of its chaotic decline, Michael David Lukas’ elegantly crafted, utterly enchanting debut novel follows a gifted young girl who dares to charm a sultan—and change the course of history, for the empire and the world. An enthralling literary adventure, perfect for readers entranced by the


Set in the heart of the exotic Ottoman Empire during the first years of its chaotic decline, Michael David Lukas’ elegantly crafted, utterly enchanting debut novel follows a gifted young girl who dares to charm a sultan—and change the course of history, for the empire and the world. An enthralling literary adventure, perfect for readers entranced by the mixture of historical fiction and magical realism in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lukas’ evocative tale of prophesy, intrigue, and courage unfolds with the subtlety of a Turkish mosaic and the powerful majesty of an epic for the ages.  

Editorial Reviews

Siobhan Fallon
“An enchanting, gorgeous read . . . Lukas captures the scents and sounds, the vivid beauty, the subtle intrigue and simultaneous naivety, of the Ottoman Empire unaware of its imminent demise.”
Reif Larsen
“A stunning debut . . . Lukas has managed to create an instant classic that feels as if it should be retroactively slipped into the great libraries of the old world.”
San Francisco Magazine
"[An] impressive debut novel."
Booklist (starred review)
“The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A gem of a first novel…an appealing blend of magical and historical realism…This is a polished literary work that will appeal to a wide readership.”
Vanity Fair
“Michael David Lukas charms in his debut.”
“THE ORACLE OF STAMBOUL is one of those debuts that defies the norm.”
San Francisco magazine
“[An] impressive debut novel.”
Book Beast
“In his enchanting debut novel, Michael David Lukas captures the mystical world of the Ottoman Empire.”-
Read All Day
The Oracle of Stamboul is a delight, a gem of a first novel.”
Today's Zaman
“An enchanting literary debut…A charming tale of passion and intrigue…that could be read in one sitting, spine-tingling descriptions will transport readers to another place and time.”
Good Housekeeping
“A magical debut.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Lukas . . . brings a raconteur’s sense of storytelling, a traveler’s eye for color and a scholar’s sense of history to his first novel. . . . Lukas has given us a Turkish delight.”
Mercury News
“A beautifully written debut novel. . . . Political intrigue, historical upheaval and Eastern mysticism come together in surprising ways as Lukas brings the book to a poignant conclusion tinged with magical realism.”
“...this riveting debut novel not only captures the atmosphere of the exotic European crossroads but also introduces a young girl who is utterly captivating.”
"The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut."
Jane Ciabattari
“Beguiling. . . . Lukas veers from the tried-and-true, making The Oracle of Stamboul a novel that offers delightful surprises.”

Eleonara Cohen's introduction to nineteenth century Ottoman Empire intrigues began as a stowaway. From her childhood trunk hiding place, Cohen graduates steadily to bigger things and wider scenes. After her father dies, she is adopted by an influential insider; then under the tutelage of an American minister and educator, she becomes a valued, if somewhat reluctant advisor to the Sultan himself. Michael David Lukas's debut novel captures the atmosphere of this hinge-point in Mideast history. Exotic; romantic; suspenseful.

Publishers Weekly
A girl changes the course of the Ottoman empire in Lukas's middling debut. Eleonora Cohen--born in 1877 Romania, prophesied to alter history, and gifted with great intelligence--stows away at age eight to follow her father to Stamboul. Her first weeks there are a whirlwind of beautiful new dresses and cultural experiences, but the idyllic adventure takes a terrible twist after her father is killed in an accident and Eleonora is taken in by her father's wealthy and politically slippery friend. She proves to be a quick study, and once her tutor alerts the palace of Eleonora's immense intelligence, she finds herself in attendance at the sultan's court, commenting on a political standoff between the Ottoman empire, Russia, and Germany. As the sultan's interest in her grows, so, too, does her reputation and importance, though Eleonora is unsure if her new role is what she wants from life. The backdrop is nicely done, but Lukas can't quite get his characters to pop or the plot to click; indeed, the buildup of Eleonora's oracle-like powers culminates in a disappointing fizzle. It's well intentioned, but flatly executed. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Eleonora Cohen's mother dies after giving birth to her in the Romanian city of Constantţa on the Black Sea in 1877. The child is raised by her doting father, Yakob, a rug merchant, and her cold and calculating aunt. By the time she is four, it is evident that Eleonora is a child prodigy; she reads and speaks several languages. When her father leaves for a trip to Stamboul (as Istanbul was then known in the Ottoman Empire), Eleonora, age eight, stows away on the ship. In Stamboul, Eleonora and her father visit her father's business partner, Turkish aristocrat Moncef Bey, and then tragedy strikes again. Meanwhile, Eleonora's extraordinary genius has come to the attention of the sultan himself, who invites her to his palace and seeks her advice. Soon rumors of the child's powers are flying around the city, and Eleonora has to make a very adult decision. VERDICT This first novel by a promising young writer is both vivid historical fiction and a haunting fable. It will appeal to a wide range of readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Kirkus Reviews

A lyrical debut novel of life in 19th-century Turkey, focusing on the effect a young prodigy (aka The Oracle of Stamboul) has on the political and cultural leaders of the time.

Born in 1877, Eleonora Cohen enters a world of tragedy, for her mother Leah dies in childbirth, and her father, the businessman Yakob, is scarcely prepared to raise a young girl on his own. Enter Leah's sister, the officious Ruxandra, who marries her brother-in-law and prepares to raise the child. When Eleonora is eight, her father goes to Stamboul—Istanbul—to sell rugs, and Eleonora secrets herself in the ship hold to be with her father. In the city she has an opportunity to further her considerable education. She demonstrates her penetrating mind by watching her father play backgammon, and then playing (and winning) her first few games. Eventually, she becomes a polymath and winds up learning seven languages. When her father dies in a ship explosion, she is left in the hands of her father's friend, Moncef Bey, who's both charmed and amazed by her erudition. Word of this precocious child gets to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the Caliph of Islam, who tests her understanding and then begins relying on her for political advice. Though cautioned by Jamaludin Pasha, the Grand Vizier, to be careful taking advice from an eight-year-old, the sultan is impressed by her shrewd political evaluations and begins to make foreign-policy decisions based on her judgment. In fact, he sends her trunks of documents to study, for the Ottoman Empire is caught on shaky ground between the German Empire and Tsarist Russia, the latter sometimes openly attacking Turkish troops. It turns out that Eleonora is indeed an oracle, perhaps the incarnation of a divine prophecy made many centuries before, for certain omens seem to have heralded her birth and young life. She ultimately vanishes, leaving almost no trace of her influence.

A quiet but passionate novel that beautifully conveys the flavor of Turkish culture.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Oracle of Stamboul

A Novel
By Michael David Lukas


Copyright © 2011 Michael David Lukas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-201209-8

Chapter One

Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late in the summer of 1877. Those who rose early that morning would recall noticing a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes circling above the harbor, looping and darting about as if in an attempt to mend a tear in the firmament. Whether or not they were successful, the birds eventually slowed their swoop and settled in around the city, on the steps of the courthouse, the red tile roof of the Constanta Hotel, and the bell tower atop St. Basil's Academy. They roosted in the lantern room of the lighthouse, the octagonal stone minaret of the mosque, and the forward deck of a steamer coughing puffs of smoke into an otherwise clear horizon. Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor's mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church. In the trees around Yakob and Leah Cohen's house the flock seemed especially excited, chattering, flapping their wings, and hopping from branch to branch like a crowd of peasants lining the streets of the capital for an imperial parade. The hoopoes would probably have been regarded as an auspicious sign, were it not for the unfortunate events that coincided with Eleonora's birth.

Early that morning, the Third Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry rode in from the north and assembled on a hilltop overlooking the town square: 612 men, 537 horses, three cannons, two dozen dull gray canvas tents, a field kitchen, and the yellow-and-black-striped standard of the tsar. They had been riding for the better part of a fortnight with reduced rations and little rest, through Kiliya, Tulcea, and Babadag, the blueberry marshlands of the Danube Delta, and vast wheat fields left fallow since winter. Their ultimate objective was Pleven, a trading post in the bosom of the Danubian Plain where General Osman Pasha and seven thousand Ottoman troops were attempting to make a stand. It would be an important battle, perhaps even a turning point in the war, but Pleven was still ten days off and the men of the Third Division were restless.

Laid out below them like a feast, Constanta had been left almost entirely without defenses. Not more than a dozen meters from the edge of the hilltop lay the rubble of an ancient Roman wall. In centuries past, these dull, rose-colored stones had protected the city from wild boars, bandits, and the Thracian barbarians who periodically attempted to raid the port. Rebuilt twice by Rome and once again by the Byzantines, the wall was in complete disrepair when the Ottomans arrived in Constanta at the end of the fifteenth century. And so it was left to crumble, its better stones carted off to build roads, palaces, and other walls around other, more strategic cities. Had anyone thought to restore the wall, it might have shielded the city from the brutality of the Third Division, but in its current state it was little more than a stumbling block.

All that morning and late into the afternoon, the men of the Third Division rode rampant through the streets of Constanta, breaking shop windows, terrorizing stray dogs, and pulling down whatever statues they could find. They torched the governor's mansion, ransacked the courthouse, and shattered the stained glass above the entrance to St. Basil's Academy. The goldsmith's was gutted, the cobbler's picked clean, and the dry-goods store strewn with broken eggs and tea. They shattered the front window of Yakob Cohen's carpet shop and punched holes in the wall with their bayonets. Apart from the Orthodox church, which at the end of the day stood untouched, as if God himself had protected it, the library was the only municipal building that survived the Third Division unscathed. Not because of any special regard for knowledge. The survival of Constanta's library was due entirely to the bravery of its keeper. While the rest of the towns people cowered under their beds or huddled together in basements and closets, the librarian stood boldly on the front steps of his domain, holding a battered copy of Eugene Onegin above his head like a talisman. Although they were almost exclusively illiterate, the men of the Third Division could recognize the shape of their native Cyrillic and that, apparently, was enough for them to spare the building.

Meanwhile, in a small gray stone house near the top of East Hill, Leah Cohen was heavy in the throes of labor. The living room smelled of witch hazel, alcohol, and sweat. The linen chest was thrown open and a pile of iodine-stained bedsheets lay on the table. Because the town's sole trained physician was otherwise disposed, Leah was attended by a pair of Tartar midwives who lived in a village nearby. Providence had brought them to the Cohens' doorstep at the moment they were needed most. 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, they said, that their last king had given on his deathwatch, but there was no time to explain. They asked to be shown to the bedroom. They asked for clean sheets, alcohol, and boiling water. Then they closed the door behind them. Every twenty minutes or so, the younger of the two scuttled out with an empty pot or an armful of soiled sheets. Apart from these brief forays, the door remained closed.

With nothing for him to do and nothing else to occupy his mind, Leah's husband, Yakob, gave himself over to worry. A large man with unruly black hair and bright blue eyes, he busied himself tugging at the ends of his beard, shuffling his receipts, and packing his pipe.


Excerpted from The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas Copyright © 2011 by Michael David Lukas. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. 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.

What People are Saying About This

Reif Larsen
“A stunning debut . . . Lukas has managed to create an instant classic that feels as if it should be retroactively slipped into the great libraries of the old world.”
Siobhan Fallon
“An enchanting, gorgeous read . . . Lukas captures the scents and sounds, the vivid beauty, the subtle intrigue and simultaneous naivety, of the Ottoman Empire unaware of its imminent demise.”

Meet the Author

MICHAEL DAVID LUKAS has been a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, a late-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv and a Rotary scholar in Tunisia. He is a graduate of Brown University and the University of Maryland, and his writing has been published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, National Geographic Traveler and the Georgia Review. Lukas lives in Oakland, California, less than a mile from where he was born. When he isn’t writing,he teaches creative writing to third- and fourth-graders. Visit him online at www.michaeldavidlukas.com.

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The Oracle of Stamboul 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
dhaupt More than 1 year ago
It was the beginning of the end for the Great Ottoman Empire. There were the obvious signs of civil unrest and international conflicts and there were more subtle signs in clandestine meetings and passed information. And it was during these troubling times when Elenora Cohen made her way into the world, it was on a Thursday while troops gathered on a hill and a flock of Hoopoes flitted about. It was not without tragedy that she did so as her mother died giving birth to her. She was attended to by her devoted father Yakob and her mother's midwives until the arrival of her mother's older unwed sister who would go on to become not only her aunt but her stepmother as well. Elenora had a relatively normal childhood and yet it soon became apparent that she was not a normal little girl as she possessed an uncommon intelligence and sponge like intellect and a somewhat mystical nature as well. This somewhat magical, mystical and enchanted little girl starts the journey of her life under a troubling star that will take her to the seat of the Empire and to it's leader as well. But what will come of her, will she go on to great things and shine like the sun or will she go down like a burning nova. Open the pages of this multidimensional and eclectic read and find out. Michael David Lukas brings us his debut novel with a plot that's as diverse as the Ottoman Empire was at the end of the Nineteenth Century when his tale takes place with a story line ranging from politics to mysticism. He brings us this with a dialogue that combines prose, everyday narrative and at times militaristic jargon which mostly has a fluent feel to it. I did however find the fluency chopped up a bit at times by a bit of wordiness and although this happens it did not diminish my enjoyment of the read. His characters are the stars and they do shine from the stuffy Ruxandra, to the loving Yakob to the patient Moncef Bey and finally the Sultan himself and his mother, and Mr. Lukas takes his time with each of these characters so we readers get their full effect. This read is not for everyone, but if you enjoy a real piece of literary fiction with enough history to satisfy the student, enough imagery to satisfy the dreamer, and enough occult to satisfy the mystic then you will love this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book broke every expectation that I had. It was wonderful. I could not put it down. I found many magical realism elements, which were wonderfully woven into the story. The ending was a complete shock.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
StacieRosePittard More than 1 year ago
I was generally pleased with the novel. Although I wasn't necessarily glued to the pages out of excitement and wonder, it was completely natural to spend hours upon hours curled up with this book, and I finished it rather quickly (without really meaning to). The author's writing style is better than most people of our time, and I was very impressed to see that this was his first novel. There were a couple of complaints that I had with the book, though nothing that really made me dislike it (more like afterthoughts once the book was finished). Aside from bland characters, the biggest complaint I have is that the author didn't do enough of a job in presenting the history and culture of the Ottoman Empire. What's irritating about this is that while reading, I got the impression that that was his purpose for writing the book. After finishing, I read over the interview with the author, and he himself confirmed this. This was a major failure which easily could have been avoided. Instead, he made a rather silly mistake in that he created a protagonist who locked herself up in a house, rather than choosing to explore the culture around her. I could have learned a lot more about the Ottoman Empire, had the main character had more time outside of her residence.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a lively read in terms of setting and the images the writer produces are exotic and crystal clear. I just wish there had been a quicker pace and a more well developed plot.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Staffer_Coffee_Time_Rom More than 1 year ago
This is a book that, when I started reading, I was unsure if I would like it. But, I was pleasantly surprised at the picture Mr. Lukas has painted for the reader. It is filled with the sights and sounds and smells that take you on a trip to another place and time with characters that enrich the story. Definitely, this is a story that can be enjoyed by readers of all genres and ages. Matilda Reviewer for Coffee Time Romance & More
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sandiek More than 1 year ago
In The Oracle Of Stamboul, the reader meets Eleonora Cohen, an eight year old girl whose mind makes her a savant capable of untangling any puzzle, whether mathematical or geopolitical. Eleonora was born in 1877 in Romania during a day of turmoil in her town, necessitating the use of midwives rather than the doctor. Her mother dies, leaving her to the care of her father and her stern aunt. When she is eight, she and her father travel to Stamboul where he plans to sell his glorious carpets. Before they can return a tragedy occurs and she is left in the care of her father's friend. While there, she reads and studies, and word of her abilities leak out. She is summoned to the residence of the Sultan, who asks her opinion of a puzzling foreign incident. When her advice proves to be the best way out of the dilemma, a firestorm is unleashed. The Sultan is entranced with this child. Castle politics run high, with his Grand Vizier and his mother, usually bitter enemies, united in their determination to separate him from this child, whom they see as an intruder. The papers get wind of the storm and blow it into a typical media occasion, suggesting that the Sultan no longer has his own will but is captured and at the mercy of a child. Eleonora is buffeted between the various factions that surround her and must now determine the solution to the most important puzzle of all--how to live her life going forward. Readers are in for a marvelous treat with this book. It is the genre I love most, historical fiction with a touch of magic realism. Lukas states that some of his literary influences include Salmon Rushdie, Jose Saramago and Gunther Grass, all authors whose books I devour. Lukas is a welcome addition to this genre. This book is recommended to all readers; it's gentle tone countered by the mounting intrigue throughout the book is a wonder.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
I was completely charmed by this unexpected fairy tale of a novel which tells of a young stowaway in a rug-seller's trunk who travels by boat to Stamboul, the city at the intersection of Europe and Asia. Stamboul is a city shrouded in mystery & incense, colored with bazaars & sunsets, and clamorous with music & many tongues. It may be universal that children, unfettered as they are by knowledge of the world, nourish the seed of hope that they might be discovered to possess unusual skills or talents, or that they be discovered to be gifted, or beautiful beyond compare. I remember that wonderful dream myself; the softness of the velvets surrounding me, the sweetness of the fruits given me, the brillance of the ribbons decorating my clothes and hair. No matter that my life was nothing of the sort. This novel has the flavor of an old fairy tale but with an indescribable freshness that makes even a world-weary curmudgeon remember days breaking bright and fresh with possibility and fantasy. The descriptions play to the western mind, wreathed as they are in eastern mystery and intrigue. The unencumbered ending was as suprising and unexpected as were the revelations carefully unfolded in preceding chapters. We feel something, and it is wistfulness. This book is entirely suitable for readers from age 12. It is especially recommended for those who think they are too old for fairy tales.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NatalieTahoe More than 1 year ago
Mastering the brilliance of historical fiction and vivid imagery, Michael David Lukas has crafted an elegant debut novel set in Stamboul, and I was absolutely drawn in from the first page. With rich and vibrant colors combined with the grittiness of life in the late 1800s in Turkey, and with just a dash of magical realism, the book resonates with the flourish of beautiful imagery. Each character is intense and genuine, and it's clear that research has been carefully documented. I had an incredibly difficult time putting this book down once I was caught up in the new life of a little eight-year-old girl (who is essentially a savant) and with the fluidity of the events and descriptions of her experiences and most especially, her abilities. I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a follow-up to this book (this just may be, though, since I enjoyed this book so much, more of my own wish to travel back and escape into Eleonora's world again). This debut author has prepared readers for a long career and I anticipate more of his work! It's pretty safe to say that I loved this book...
JenLubinski More than 1 year ago
Too much telling, not enough showing. Hated the ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Aradanryl More than 1 year ago
It is marvelous when a book transports me to a different time and place with people I want to spend time with, I turn the final page satisfied but yet long for more, and I immediately want to share the experience with a friend. The book is wonderful, the story enchanting, and I'm convinced this book is a winner. It is one that I personally will provide copies to our public and the school libraries. But this time, I'd like to share a bit more. Although I normally don't post about the physical part of reading, this book was very special. The book arrived in a gilt lined decorative box, closed with a hoopoe label, like a precious gift. The book itself is beautiful with rich colors and a soft feel. Just the right size for holding. The rough edges of the cream-colored pages were easy. From the beautiful letter from Terry Karten, through the story, to the story behind the book and the information on the author, it was pure enjoyment. Note: This beautiful advance readers edition was provided through the GoodReads First Read program with the expectation of an honest review. My opinions are my own. The review is cross-posted from GoodReads.