Author: Michael David Lukas

2011, Harper

Filed Under: Historical, Fantasy.

The Oracle of Stamboul is a competent and at times engrossing bit of historical fiction, but it’s also a case of magical realism that wants the magic to matter more than it ultimately does. For the majority of the book, the fantastical elements are not present; sadly, when they do crop up, they aren’t crucial to anything. That’s a shame, because Lukas spins a good yarn, balancing characters, plot, and tension nicely.

Almost right away, Oracle reveals itself as a somewhat picaresque late-19th century adventure story set in a particularly volatile part of the world. Eleonora Cohen is the precocious daughter of a Jewish carpet seller. When her father, Yakob, travels from their home near the Black Sea to the great city Stamboul (Istanbul) in order to sell off some textile stock, Eleonora stows away. Turns out to be a good idea, as their home town is sacked not long after the departure.

When her father dies in a boat bombing, orphaned Eleonora is left in the care of her father’s friend, a Turkish Bey (chieftain) living in Stamboul. She’s tutored in the classics by an American theologian, and she quickly reveals a polyglot aptitude for language. This is despite the fact that she ceases speaking after her father’s death–a twist that serves no purpose given that she communicates with characters freely by pen and paper, then starts speaking again. It could have been intended to signify some sort of chrysalis-like metamorphosis into an oracle, but if that’s the case, Lukas handles it as meekly as the rest of the book’s scattered magical elements.

In any case, as her knowledge increases, politics swirl around her. The Bey is suspected of plotting the bombing; the tutor is a spy of sorts. Eleanora finds herself caught up in machinations that aren’t quite as over-her-head as the adults around her think.

At this point in the review it may not come as a surprise, but I didn’t like the tinges of the fantastical that dot the novel, despite my normal enjoyment of that sort of thing. Perhaps this is because it’s never clear exactly what is fantastical about Eleonora. The Sultan, when he catches wind of her aptitude, surely sees her as something special: he invites her to his palace, shares secret documents with her, and asks her for political advice. But he’s interested in her memory and capacity for history and language (her study of the classics allowed her to find historical parallels to the stratagems of the Russians and Germans), and shows no interest in whether she is in any way mystical. Although mysterious midwives claim her birth fulfills a prophesy by the oracles of Delphi, no important character, including Eleonora, believes she’s actually an oracle.

If only Lukas had taken the same tack.

There’s a flock of purple hoopoes (good thing I read my Ovid) that follow her around everywhere, pointing to her supposed specialness like the Star of Bethlehem. And then there are the midwives/guardians that also follow her around, all too strongly confirming the presence of the supernatural. All that would be fine if it became relevant, but Lukas never connects these signs to anything. Whether or not she’s got ESP or Asperger’s is inconsequential to not only the plot, but to the tale as a whole.  By peppering this stuff throughout his book, then ramping it up in the very final pages, Lukas seems to be trying to inject a little oomph of wonderment at his somewhat flagging ending. For me, it had the opposite effect.

Magical realism can be a great tool when authors use it to manipulate characters and plots in otherwise impossible or unbelievable ways. It doesn’t work when it’s flicked on a story like a splash of paint. If it’s not organic to the plot or setting or theme, then it’s superfluous, as it is here. Oracle would be better if the fabulism around this special girl had been left to the characters to navigate, rather than used as a signpost for the reader by an intrusive narrator.

Despite its shortcomings, the writing shows promise. This is an endearing book and a good candidate for a beach or train read. If Lukas’s next book is written with a lighter hand, it could be very good.

Similar Reads: The Chess Machine (Löhr), The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (Akroyd)