The Oracle of Stamboul

The Oracle of Stamboul

3.8 29
by Michael David Lukas

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An elegantly crafted, utterly enchanting debut novel set in a mystical, exotic world, in which a gifted young girl charms a sultan and changes the course of an empire's history

Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea,

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An elegantly crafted, utterly enchanting debut novel set in a mystical, exotic world, in which a gifted young girl charms a sultan and changes the course of an empire's history

Late in the summer of 1877, a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes suddenly appears over the town of Constanta on the Black Sea, and Eleonora Cohen is ushered into the world by a mysterious pair of Tartar midwives who arrive just minutes before her birth. "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 that their last king had given on his deathwatch." But joy is mixed with tragedy, for Eleonora's mother dies soon after the birth.

Raised by her doting father, Yakob, a carpet merchant, and her stern, resentful stepmother, Ruxandra, Eleonora spends her early years daydreaming and doing housework—until the moment she teaches herself to read, and her father recognizes that she is an extraordinarily gifted child, a prodigy.

When Yakob sets off by boat for Stamboul on business, eight-year-old Eleonora, unable to bear the separation, stows away in one of his trunks. On the shores of the Bosporus, in the house of her father's business partner, Moncef Bey, a new life awaits. Books, backgammon, beautiful dresses and shoes, markets swarming with color and life—the imperial capital overflows with elegance, and mystery. For in the narrow streets of Stamboul—a city at the crossroads of the world—intrigue and gossip are currency, and people are not always what they seem. Eleonora's tutor, an American minister and educator, may be a spy. The kindly though elusive Moncef Bey has a past history of secret societies and political maneuvering. And what is to be made of the eccentric, charming Sultan Abdulhamid II himself, beleaguered by friend and foe alike as his unwieldy, multiethnic empire crumbles?

The Oracle of Stamboul is a marvelously evocative, magical historical novel that will transport readers to another time and place—romantic, exotic, yet remarkably similar to our own.

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
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.
THE ORACLE OF STAMBOUL is one of those debuts that defies the norm.
Read All Day
The Oracle of Stamboul is a delight, a gem of a first novel.
Booklist (starred review)
“The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut.”
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.
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.”-
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.
...this riveting debut novel not only captures the atmosphere of the exotic European crossroads but also introduces a young girl who is utterly captivating.
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.
Good Housekeeping
A magical debut.
Vanity Fair
Michael David Lukas charms in his debut.
The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut.
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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