The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The whole time I was reading this, I kept thinking This is why I give terrific books like MAPLECROFT four stars, because I need room for THIS.
Then I got to the end, and the whole thing fell flat.
The setting is Istanbul in the 1830’s, and an army officer has been murdered, his body displayed in a gruesome way. Imperial operative Yashim is brought in to solve the killing, and to find the other three officers who disappeared at the same time. Yashim is a man of some breeding who can move unobtrusively through all levels of society, including the sultan’s harem… because he’s a eunuch.
Anyway, historical fiction is something of a research competition. Writers immerse themselves in the time and place, studying the details that will make the reader feel that they’re really experiencing this other time and place, with just enough details to ground the story without turning into a travelogue. Then readers come along, looking for nits to pick… It’s a whole thing.
And it bores me, to be honest. As a fantasy reader, I love the sense of place and don’t worry too much about accuracy. Anathema, I know, but there it is.
In truth, the novel made me wish there were more novels with the same feeling of complexity and nuance that the real world has. I wish I were capable of it, myself.
Yeah, this is a murder mystery with far-reaching political implications. If the protagonist was a little slack in his investigation, well, that’s a nice change. The denouement didn’t work, unfortunately, and the “action” scenes deserve the air quotes. There was violence but none written with the sort of tension that makes the heart race.
Still, the description of everyday life in 1830’s Istanbul was a delight, and made me wish I could visit right now. The characters were complex and interesting. The genre stuff was tatty window dressing, and disappointing in the end.
If you’re a reader who enjoys reading fantasy novels for the settings, try this. Seriously.
Book 2 for 15in2015