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AN EVIL EYE by Jason Goodwin: Book Review

The Ottoman Empire. Harem girls, the bazaar, the sultan, the eunuchs, the pashas.  What could be more romantic?  Or deadly?

An Evil Eye takes the reader into the Turkey of 1836, a time of turbulent change. The old sultan has just died, and his young nephew is about to ascend the throne.  But Turkey is caught in the middle of various countries’ plots.  Russia, on the east, lies in wait for Turkey to ask for her aid, which she was forced to do several years earlier.  At that time the Russian army returned home, but this time they may decide to stay.  Egypt, to the southwest, has just gotten control of Turkey’s navy via the Turkish admiral’s hard-to-understand defection.  And England and France are not going to help Turkey, apparently, no matter what happens.

In the midst of all the political intrigue is Inspector Yashim, a eunuch in the service of the palace and sultan. He is called by the grand vizier to investigate rumors of a body being found in the well of the city’s Greek monastery.  Relations being what they are between Turkey and Greece, Yashim must quiet the mob he finds at the gates of the monastery when he arrives, or he will have a full-fledged riot between the Christians and Muslims in Istanbul.

At the palace, there are intrigues within intrigues. The old sultan’s girls (some as young as eleven or twelve) are forced out, sent either to arranged marriages or to live their lives in another palace without the protection of the sultan.  The new sultan’s girls are entering, some coming from out in the country and new to the more sophisticated, cunning ways of the city.  And soon after arriving, several of the girls in the royal orchestra become ill, and one dies as the result of a inexplicable pregnancy.

The valide, the mother of the old sultan and the grandmother of the new sultan, appears to be losing her grip on life. Formerly sharp and in charge of all the women in the seraglio, she appears to be fading away before Yashim’s eyes.

With the old sultan dead and the new one an unknown quantity, losing the valide would be a major blow to Yashim’s autonomy and independence.  He considered her a friend, or at least as much as friendship could exist between royalty and commoner.  Yashim still has his closest friend, Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador, to help him with his investigations, but in Europe of the 1830s, Poland as a country is non-existent.  Palewski has no real power and absolutely no money, only the nobility he has had from birth.

Yashim is a charming protagonist. He is smart, both intellectually smart and street smart, and he is caring and compassionate at the same time.  His own tragic background makes him sympathize with those less fortunate and less powerful than himself, and he works to help them.  At the same time, he is very aware that his power may be stripped from him by the slightest word of those more powerful–the grand vizier, the valide, the sultan himself.  So he walks a narrow line to the best of his ability.

An Evil Eye is the fourth novel featuring Inspector Yashim. The book is filled with the sights and sounds and smells of the city that straddles Europe and Asia.  No detail is too small to be mentioned–the food that Yashim eats, the music that the royal orchestra plays, the clothes and shoes that are worn by the citizens of Istanbul.  All of this brings the city vividly to life.

Jason Goodwin is a scholar of the Ottoman Empire and the author of non-fiction books on Turkey as well as the Inspector Yashim series. You can read more about Jason Goodwin at his web site.

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