As a bookseller, I recently had a long conversation in the children’s department with a retired teacher who was interested in writing historical fiction for readers of every age. She asked for my favorite examples of such novels, and beyond a few rudimentary classics I couldn’t name any published within the last five or so years. Everything seems to be dystopian futures or time travel, with little effort spent examining the authentic past.
If Michael David Lukas noted the dearth of such novels, he surely would have felt assured that his debut novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, would fill that lack. It certainly reads unlike anything you’ve read lately: blending historical facts with a kind of magical, heightened realism, Lukas recreates the lands of the Ottoman Empire of the late 19th century and focuses eventually on Stamboul (known today as Istanbul). A young girl chafing under her stepmother’s oppression and craving both freedom and further knowledge follows her father to Stamboul, where circumstances and vague prophecy mark her as the titular oracle whose knowledge and foresight will change the very course of history. Soon she has a larger choice to make: fulfill her destiny and serve the sultan or avoid her destiny and find that elusive freedom.
Being sensitive to descriptions of place, I was always entertained and often astonished at the depth of detail Lukas weaves into his narrative. Entire pages had to be read and immediately reread to fully absorb the richness manifested in the text, and Lukas is to be commended for finding so many varied ways of describing the kind of intricate décor and architecture found in the homes, businesses, and palaces of Stamboul. Melding historical fiction with a keen sense of visual aesthetics is how Lukas conjures up this very different time and place, and the beauty of his prose makes the reader an enthusiastic traveler back to 1885. Just as fascinating is the ongoing question of the prophecy regarding 8-year-old Eleonora Cohen. Is Eleonora an exceptionally bright young girl or a prophesized shaper of destiny? And what exactly does it mean to be the oracle?
Calling The Oracle of Stamboul a kind of fairy tale seems too simple, as its complexity and lushness combine with the magical elements in a way that moves beyond most fairy tales. I think it’s more appropriate to say that this novel has many facets that blend together as an evocative historical epic that imagines a fantastical possibility of magic in the destiny of the Ottoman Empire. Genre-busting as it sounds, The Oracle of Stamboul is highly recommended to any reader who loves the pleasure of well-written prose and the adventure of a faraway, long-ago world captured as lovingly as possible.