And magical realism rears its ugly — no, I’m kidding. The Oracle of Stamboul has the tiniest ever amount of magical realism, actually the perfect amount. At the start of the story, when our protagonist Eleonora is about to be born, the author mentions a flock of hoopoes (they look like this, if you’re curious) that comes to settle near her house on the night of her birth. After that, I was on red alert, as my displeasure with an excess of magical realism is rapid and permanent. But first-time author Michael David Lukas has a light touch with the magical realism, anchoring his story instead on Eleonora’s personhood.
As Eleonora grows up, raised by her widowed father and stern aunt, her flock of hoopoes is a constant presence in her life. She herself is a prodigy. Her father is proud and her aunt disapproving, but the need of books is fundamental to Eleonora, and she reads everything she can get her hands on. When her father leaves their home in Constanta for Stamboul (where he plans to sell his carpets), she stows away in a trunk and ends up at the home of her father’s friend, Moncef Bey, in the midst of a magnificent city in a crumbling empire. Meanwhile, Sultan Abdulhamid II struggles to keep his empire together in spite of the terrible advice of all his useless advisers.
What can I say about this book? Of course I want to say that it came in an adorable envelope with a hoopoe seal, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the book itself. It’s a quiet book, for a story set in a tumultuous time in history and containing a number of fairly catastrophic events. Eleonora is born on the day that Russians attack her village; in the course of the book she loses her mother, and then her homeland, and Stamboul presents a whole new set of challenges for her (I won’t spoil it for you). But Eleonora is an inward-focused girl, and her reactions are quiet and contained, and hers are the eyes through which we see her life. Noisy things happen (like the Russian attack), but the book is never noisy about them. If that makes sense.
I expected The Oracle of Stamboul to be significantly more adorable, and less of a grown-up person book, than in fact it is. I liked what Lukas did with it, but I was expecting a lot more time devoted to Eleonora giving precocious, useful, and disingenuous advice relating to empire-governing matters. The ending of the book was not what I anticipated. I loved that Lukas didn’t go a predictable, sequel-baiting rout. But I would like to see a sequel, as long as it didn’t play up the magical realism any more.
And coming up:
Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper.