Mario's Reviews > The Janissary Tree

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
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Oct 22, 11

bookshelves: fiction, mystery, historical
Read from January 27 to May 26, 2011

I really wanted to like this book, but Goodwin's missteps (I hesitate to call them mistakes (but they were)) made the book far less enjoyable than it could have been.

I can start with where he went right. The setting is wonderful, and it makes it really obvious that, when it comes to Istanbul, he knows what he's talking about. Investigator Yashim is a worthy detective in every sense; he's a well-thought out, well rounded detective and very enjoyable to follow. The mystery itself isn't bad, but it only seems to in retrospect given the missteps alluded to above.

Now to that other stuff. First, It was pretty obvious that this was his first foray into fiction as the writing is particularly stiff in the first few chapters. It's hard to describe, but it is almost like you want to tell the Goodwin that wrote the end of the book (where it really picks up) to go back and rewrite the beginning, because that guy just didn't know what he was doing. He introduces too much too quickly, as if he didn't realize how unfamiliar most of his readers would be with the entire setting. If this had a more contemporary setting, you could get away with so much detail, but here some of the words are barely pronounceable as it is, and so many just lead to a word soup that your eyes glaze over without taking in nearly as much as the author intended.

Second, there are the weird sentences, where the author seems to have some confusion about the narrator, like "Stanislaw Palewski was about fifty-five years old." About? The book is written as a third-person omniscient, so why doesn't the narrator know how old he is, and what kind of an estimate is fifty-five? There is also the time that Yashim mentions his "privates" when, as a eunuch, I thought he should be referring to his "private." That's not an error, really, but I think it's a mistake; the author squandered a perfectly good opportunity for a little black humor, and I think he failed, at that point, to understand Yashim and what he would be thinking. I doubt Yashim would have thought that without correcting himself.

And then, there's the insult. The narrator talks about how Yashim likes to cook, but resisted it for a while. "It was not that, until then, he had always considered cooking as a woman's work: cooks in the empire could be of either sex." So who does consider cooking to be a women's work? It's not Yashim, clearly, as that's not something he could think. It's not the narrator, who is completely impersonal and should only be thinking in Ottoman terms, as a rule. So that leaves me, the reader. #*>@ you. I said that aloud as I was reading it, and (and I'm know I'm probably being irrational here) I'm still bothered by it.

All of this, is should be noted again, happens at the beginning of the book. By the end, the book gets really good as the story winds up (I thought chapter 119 was particularly well-written), but it was too hard to follow the story up to that point to enjoy it, or the resolution of the mystery. I still intend to read the other books in the Yashim series, as it definitely had potential, but I can't recommend this one.
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