Each night Ahmed Kadir starnds guard outside the palace of the sultan's favorite sister, the Sultanes Esma, waiting for her discarded Christian lover who he must drown in the Bosphorous. Ahmed, a Janissary, hates his enforced idleness. He wants to return to his Kapikulu calavary regiment, but his prowess has earned the envy of the sultan, so he is banished and sent to guard the sultan's sister.
Esma falls ill. No one can help her. She sees the faces of dying men and smells rotting flesh. Her physician urges her to confess or at least share the thoughts troubling her. Ahmed, who shares her secret of the drowning lovers, seems the perfect person to confide in. In a reverse Scheherazade scenerio, she calls him to her each night and tells him stories of her life.
The best part of this book is the description of the Ottoman Empire; the luxury, depravity, and political machinations. The rich detail draws you into the time and makes the area come alive.
The characters, however, and not believable. Esma is a historical character and her depravity well documented. The turn around from drowning her Christian lovers to telling a man the secrets of her heart seems a bit far fetched. I also find it difficult to believe that a man was allowed into her bed chamber each night. I think it more likely, considering the sultan's dislike of Ahmed, that he'd use the information to have him killed.
One of the themes of this book is the desire for freedom. The Esma and her ladies are secluded in the harem, but they long to be free and able to compete with men. This is an admirable theme, but I find it hard to couple with the era and the Ottoman Empire where the spoiled harem women never left the luxurious palaces. I can believe that a slave girl from the Serbian plains would have trouble adjusting to the lack of freedom, but with the others including Esma it's more of a stretch.
If you enjoy historical novels with good background, this is a book for you. If you expect characters that are realistic in the context of the time, give it a miss.
I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.