The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White
I always seem to find myself reading the first book in a series because a book farther along in the series looks interesting. Being a completionist, I need to start at the beginning. The Sultan’s Seal followed this pattern, in that I ran across one of the sequels in Publishers Weekly and promptly added The Sultan’s Seal to the list. I was expecting a fairly interesting detective series set in the late Ottoman Empire, but The Sultan’s Seal is much more than that. I think I’m going to need to add the rest of the series to the old list soon…
Set during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, The Sultan’s Seal is, technically, a murder mystery. When the body of an Englishwoman washes up in the jurisdiction of Magistrate Kamil Pasha, Kamil sets out to solve what he thinks is a simple murder case. Naturally, he visits the English Embassy, where he finds a very helpful ally in the Ambassador’s daughter, Sibyl. But the murder turns out to be much more sinister than either of them could have suspected, and the shadowy figure of Jeenan, who was close with the murdered woman, reaches over all of them.
As I mention to no end, mysteries and I don’t really get along–the structure of them are usually so similar that it’s hard to be shocked. However, The Sultan’s Seal adopts not the structure of a traditional mystery (the main characters don’t even know why the initial murder was committed by the end of the novel) but that of a thriller. As Kamil and Sybil dig further and further into a seemingly straight forward murder, the pace gets quicker and quicker until the breathless climax. I really have to commend White’s mastery of pacing here; it’s so steadily done that you don’t realize the pace is getting faster until it’s right on top of you. Part of this is the use of Jeenan’s chapters. While Kamil’s and Sybil’s chapters are obviously different, they’re still part of the same storyline. Jeenan’s chapters are both removed from the action and wildly important, which allows for pacing breaks without the reader feeling like they’re missing anything.
While it took me a little while to warm to the introspective Kamil (because I was under the impression that this was a mystery), Sybil and Jeenan immediately connected. Sybil is a charming Englishwoman who loves Istanbul, but still retains some of the patronizing views of Westerners towards the Ottoman. Jeenan is, in my opinion, the best character in the book. Smart, determined, and constantly beset by tragedy, Jeenan is an Islamic scholar and feminist who argues against an arranged marriage and for women’s rights using the Koran and Islamic history. I wasn’t expecting to find such a wonderfully nuanced portrait of Islam in The Sultan’s Seal. The romances are done marvelously. They’re never overbearing, as Kamil is far too polite and Sybil a little too shy, and they’re nicely organic. I look forward to Kamil and Sybil discussing the role of Europe in the Ottoman Empire in future novels in the series. I don’t want to spoil the other romance, but I was blown away by it and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I don’t know much about the Ottoman Empire, but it’s slowly been creeping up on my reading list, between Behemoth and The Sheen on the Silk, which is actually sitting on my desk right now. (As per my rules, I’m gargling with Plastic Jesus between historical novels.) White doesn’t talk down to the reader, and instead uses the conceit of Sibyl’s chapters occasionally only containing letters from her to her sister to explain anything that might be obscure or vague. White is so comfortable with the languages of the Ottoman Empire that she occasionally has her characters discuss idioms in English and Turkish. I was surprised to discover that while Kamil is the detective, the focus is really on the lives of women–Sibyl’s life as a foreigner in the Ottoman Empire, and Jeenan’s life as a woman caught between the Eastern tradition she was raised in and the Western tradition slowly being forced on her.
I think a lot of Jenny White’s strengths come from the fact that she’s an anthropologist specializing in Turkish culture, giving her the sort of background that allows for such a deeply researched and nuanced portrait of the late Ottoman Empire. I love it when people trained as something else write; it helps make the work unique and fresh. However, it did take me a while to get into The Sultan’s Seal because of the style. The prose was initially a little flowery for my taste, but it certainly fits a work set during the late nineteenth century, and the problem vanishes once the pace picks up. It also took me a little bit to adjust to reading historical fiction in the present tense. (Jeenan, forever earning my love, only uses it once.) I don’t know why that throws me, but it does, so just a heads up. But this are small flaws in a wonderful novel.
Bottom line: The Sultan’s Seal isn’t a mystery; it’s a historical thriller that also provides a nuanced view of the Ottoman Empire as well as Muslim women. While the writing can be a bit flowery at first, those that stick with it will be rewarded with a solid and interesting window into the late Ottoman Empire.
I rented this book from the public library.