Cassandra's Reviews > The Oracle of Stamboul

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas
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's review
Feb 11, 2011

really liked it

Most 8 year old girls are uninteresting. Eleanora Cohen may seem to be just such a girl to the casual observer. That is, if they fail to pay attention to the mysterious flock of purple hoopoes that has watched over her from birth or the fact that those birds were part of the prophecy that led two Tartar midwifes to her family's door just as her mother was ready to give birth. It quickly becomes apparent, though, to her family that she is in some way extraordinary. It is evidenced in how she is able to master reading in such a short time, the way she keeps track of figures in her head, and the novels that she pulls down from the shelf to keep her company as she reads after her dinner.

Lukas tells the story of Eleanora and how she becomes the "Oracle of Stamboul." The first part of the book, describing her childhood and how she arrives in Stamboul moves at a nice pace. It begins with an army raiding the city of Constanta, just as Eleanora's mother goes into labor. He documents her mother's death, her father's grief, and the arrival of the aunt who arrives to raise her. He shows a little girl who takes the lessons of her favorite book, The Hourglass, to heart and stows away in her father's trunk as he travels to Stamboul for business rather than spend a month alone with her aunt.

Instead of getting in trouble for what she has done, Eleanora is treated to a vacation unlike any she could have ever imagined. She is treated as royalty, spoiled by the generosity of her father's friend the Bey. Just before they are scheduled to return to Constanta, tragedy strikes, and Eleanora finds herself alone. The Bey looks after her, honoring a promise he made to her father long ago. It is at this point that the pace of the novel slows down. It is also at this point when a degree of intrigue enters the story. Unfortunately, the potential suspense that could have been built by Reverend Muehler's attempts at espionage and the Bey's secretive meetings are lost in the description of Eleanora and her profound grief at the loss of her father.

Lukas' descriptions are beautifully written, particularly those of the physical environment. For example:

"Summer slipped into Stamboul under the cover of a midday shower. It took up residence near the foundations of the Galata Bridge and drifted through the city like a stray dog."

It is passages such as this one that keep the reader engaged through the slowest portions of the narrative. The chapters that describe Eleanora's self-imposed silence are, by far, the slowest of the novel. She is lost completely in her grief, and Lukas seems to devote his efforts into making the reader feel it right along with her. He need not have tried so hard. Thankfully, the beauty of his writing carries the reader through until the moment when Eleanor rediscovers her voice. There, the pace picks up again, though it never quite flows as smoothly as it does in the early chapters. The ending may seem to be a bit abrupt, but Lukas satisfies the readers' curiosity with the epilogue that he includes.

The Oracle of Stamboul is a good read, though a bit unsatisfying in places. The plot, which is not entirely unfamiliar, is elevated by the exotic setting. The descriptions bring Stamboul to life, making the reader wish that he or she was there to experience all the wonders that the city has to offer. The precocious little girl that I used to be identifies with Eleanora and almost wishes that she had been as brave. It is perhaps this quality that appeals to me the most and makes the story shine a brighter than it might have otherwise.

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