Thursday, September 4, 2008

Adventures in Istanbul

I'm sure we've all wondered what life was like for a eunuch in 19th century Istanbul. Well, to be honest I hadn't really considered it until I read "The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin last year. It's a mystery novel whose detective is a eunuch named Yashim, who works for the sultan. It was a great read, and I just finished its sequel, "The Snake Stone".
I won't bother describing the plot because that's not the appeal of this book, or of The Janissary Tree either. I generally read mysteries very quickly, but I find that I have to read these books slowly because otherwise I would miss all the atmosphere. I knew almost nothing about Istanbul before reading the first book, but the descriptions of the city are amazing. I've paused while reading to look online for photos of the Aga Sofia, or to look up a point of Polish history after Yashim's friend, the Polish ambassador, mentions something that I'm not clear on. And the descriptions of Yashim's cooking are so detailed that not only can you practically smell it while you read, I think you could almost cook from this book.
If you are looking for a mystery with a quick pace and a clear plot, these are not the books for you. The Snake Stone, in particular, sometimes read more like a description for a movie version of itself than a novel. However, if you like historical fiction and would like to learn more about the people, places, and politics of Istanbul, then I would recommend these books