A fascinating peek into the 16th century world of the Ottoman Empire. The story is told through the memories of a woman who is dying and recalling the circumstances that brought her to where she is now. Her extraordinary life included being kidnapped by pirates, educated with a prince and joining the royal family of Suleiman “the Magnificent.”
All of this as a female in the 1500s! Katherine Nouri Hughes, the author, admits that there are so few records of her life that Cecilia Baffo Veniero, called Nurbanu, was a blank slate.
But, Nurbanu actually existed. Hughes gives her a life of mystery, dizzying highs, lows, and riches beyond imagining. I loved it.
And, I learned so much from this story. Admittedly, my historical fiction preferences seem to run towards the Roman Empire or Tudor England. Perhaps it was time I branched out.
For example, did you know that there was a law for when the heir to the Sultan took the throne, that all of his brothers were killed? This was to protect the dynasty from civil war. “And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers. That law has held us together; secured our Empire; made us who we are…” loc 127, ebook.
Beyond the obvious reasons, this was particularly awful because the Sultan tended to have scores of kids. There were the usual threats of illness and the plague to consider.
Suleiman himself was a legend in his own time. “A man like no other. His titles alone told the story. … Sultan of the Two Continents, Servitor of the Two Sanctuaries, Warden of the Horizons. Suleiman the Magnificent- man and legend combined. … Imperial, mirthless, deadly pale.” loc 463, ebook.
He ruled an empire and his children. According to Hughes, he was heavily influenced by his favorite wife, Hurrem, who is a colorful character in this story.
Nurbanu is fortunate because, when she is captured, she was already well-educated. “I’d been assigned to the Head Scribe herself without question because I was educated. That was what Barbarossa had said at the presentation. ‘She can read.'” loc 482. That saves her from more gruesome fates within the harem.
But it doesn’t make her life easy. After all, she’s still a slave in the palace of Suleiman.
“I know how awful the end of fantasy is- for it steals into parts of the heart and mind where nothing should be able to go. It is driven by the heat of what we long for, and it melts all that is in its path until it comes out into the open and is exposed for what it is: something that was never true.” locs 3250-3268.
Recommended for readers who like historical fiction with a large cast of character, an exotic locale and a heroine with a quick mind.
Thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for a free advance reader copy of this book. Reminder- the short quotations that I used in this review may differ in the final printed version.
Thanks for reading!