Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman - 339 pgs

Book CoverThe Aviary Gate is the duel story of Celia Lamprey and Elizabeth Staveley. Elizabeth is a modern day scholar researching the story of Celia, a young English woman who is kidnapped following a shipwreck and forced into the harem of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Lost and presumed dead to her family and friends, Celia must learn to survive in a forbidding and strange place. As Elizabeth hunts for clues about this missing girl that time and history forgot, the story of Celia is told in all it's bewitching detail. The Sultan's mother, the Valide, has plans for Celia which will put her at the very top of the harem and directly in the path of certain danger. Plots and enemies lurk around every corner, and everyone, it seems, has a hidden agenda and harbors dangerous ambitions. After a murderous plot is unveiled, Celia realizes that no one's place in the harem is secure. Although she thinks that she must languish here forever, she is not forgotten. Someone from her past is searching for her, and he's gotten closer than she can imagine. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has more than a scholarly puzzle on her plate. She is having problems with her lover, Marius. After numerous disappointments and heartbreaks, Elizabeth must decide what is most important to her, and what must be cleared away. In an effort to gain perspective, Elizabeth travels to Istanbul, where new opportunities arise for herself and for her studies of Celia.

With the clever use of the two story lines, the author is able to expound on detail and back story that the straightforward narrative of Celia's story lacks, while introducing another heroine. This dual story also had the effect of heightening the suspense of both stories, and creating a palpable anticipation in the reader. Without Elizabeth's analysis of the past, the story of Celia would have sacrificed its depth and importance.

The characters of Celia and Elizabeth were very different, yet somehow reminiscent of each other. Though both lived in different times, with different political and social customs, both struggled with the unfulfilling realities of love. Both women took control of their lives, albeit in different ways, and made their own destinies. Each examined her situation and courageously fought for happiness. These shared emotions of fear, discovery and heartache spurred them onwards in their emotional growth.

I particularly liked the author's description of the harem life. The clothes, jewels, and other facets of the foreign lifestyle were described with elegant confidence. It was entrancing to read about the ritual bathing and grooming, the intricate social hierarchies, and formal restrictions of behavior. The rivalries and jealousies of the women of the harem were startling in their fierceness and their resolution, and even the most docile of the women held secrets and alliances. It was often hard to gauge just who was targeting whom, and for what reason, which made this story unpredictable and satisfying.

The cast of characters were rendered in very exacting detail; they were multi-dimensional and vivid, each having their own motivations and concerns. The morally dubious characters still had moments of humility and compassion, while the villains were singularly unscrupulous, yet shrewd enough to mimic sincere behavior. Even the heroes and heroines had unappealing aspects that weren't glossed over.

Ultimately, I was impressed by the range of this book. It was once a mystery, love story, and historical novel. The plot was engaging, and the characters interesting. The book did not suffer long-windedness or become tedious. Though the ending wasn't what I was expecting; it was haunting and evocative. Reading this novel was a rare pleasure.


Anonymous said...

I stumbled across another historical fiction novel you may like - Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

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