Review: The Oracle of Stamboul, Michael David Lukas

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.

The Oracle of Stamboul is on a TLC Blog Tour.Other stops on the blog tour include:

living read girl
Life Is Short, Read Fast
Melody and Words
Rayment’s Reading, Rants, and Ramblings

And coming up:

Book Sake
Jen’s Book Thoughts
Luxury Reading!

Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper.

  • I just finished reading another review of this book where the reviewer thought that the young protagonist was a bit wooden and overly intelligent for an 8 year old. It’s interesting to hear that just a touch of magical realism was used because I sort of have a love hate with that device in itself. When it’s done well and with a light hand, it can be amazing, but sometimes it just comes across as too much. Glad to hear that you ultimately liked this one though, and are hoping for a sequel. Great review!

    • I actually thought it worked. I had a friend when I was twelve who was not unlike Eleonora, though not to the same extreme. (I mean, I still have her now, but she’s less inward-focused now.) So I didn’t find her unrealistic at all.

      I mostly hate hate magical realism, with a few exceptions, and this didn’t bother me at all. I think you’re safe trying it! 🙂

  • Amy

    I don’t know how to feel about this one. Most of the reviews I’ve read seem to be middle of the road and I don’t know if I want to invest the time but on the other hand, it does sound like an interesting setting.

    • It is an excellent setting. I wanted more of the setting, to be honest. I am not necessarily a fan of the quiet book in general, but this one worked for me.

  • hm, some of my favourite books have lots of magical realism. Maybe this book wouldn’t have enough for me? I can’t decide at all…

    • Ha, I can’t speak to that. Magical realism is my enemy. The less of it that shows up to torment my life, the better. (With a few exceptions.)

  • I like quiet, and as you know I like magic realism 😛 Adding to the Someday list.

    • I hope you like it! It’s not a lot of magical realism though. Be prepared for only a tiny smidge of it.

  • Mumsy

    Oh, not what I expected from the blurb! But actually sounds quite interesting. Like you, I love the little hints of magical realism…you tell me. Should I read this?

    • I would say, maybe. But not tomorrow. It’s not an urgent read. If you fancy something rather charming, and there’s nothing more pressing on your docket, then yes.

  • I tried very hard to read this one from NetGalley and got maybe a third of the way through. I just didn’t find myself wanting to read it. Oh well. I am, though, very happy you provided a hoopoe visual, though, as I’d meant to look them up but completely forgot!

    • Indeed? You didn’t care for it at all? I thought it was a little slow to start but I liked Eleonora a lot so I stuck with it and liked it a lot.

  • I love magical realism and since I already have a copy of this, I’m definitely going to read this. I’m with Erin, thanks for letting us know what a hoopoe looks like. If a flock of those followed me around through life, I’ll probably freak!

    • They’re not following her around in a creepy way! They’re just, like, around. In the trees.

  • I hadn’t heard of this one, but it sounds like a pretty good book!

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  • I think the magical realism was a perfect pairing with Istanbul — a place that I associate with a bit of magic. I didn’t really go into this novel with any preconceived ideas of what it should be so I wasn’t disappointed!

    • I wasn’t disappointed either. Just surprised. And I did really love the Istanbul setting.

  • Despite your point about this being a “grown-up book” and not just adorable, I can’t shake the feeling that this book would be a little too precocious and predictably bland to my taste. It seems like The Oracle of Stamboul may have merit, but I can’t find myself actually picking it up.

    • It really wasn’t predictable and precocious in the way that you seem to be thinking. Promise. It’s intriguinger than I was thinking it would be. Of course, I was looking forward to the adorableness I was expecting…

  • I am not sure if this book is for me. I can’t tell if its the setting or what but something about it is kind of off putting to me. However it sounds like you enjoyed it so I’ll stop rambling about my own issues!

    • This actually was a great setting for me at this time, because I just read a nonfiction book about the collapse of the Ottomon Empire. Before reading that book, I wasn’t necessarily all that into Ottoman Empire settings.

  • What book turned you off from magical realism? I’ve personally only started to enjoy it (I can’t remember the ones I read when I was younger, but there were a few short stories written with m.r. and I remember finding them dull).

    • ALL OF THEM. Or, I guess, if I had to pinpoint one book, I’d say it was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I hated it so hard.

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  • I’m so glad you enjoyed this one even though you (like me) are not generally a magical realism fan. And I’m also glad to know that it wasn’t “cutesy” but rather was “intriguer” as you put it. 🙂 Thanks a bonus for me!

    Thanks for being on the tour.