I’m still not quite sure what made me pick up this title. Historical fiction hasn’t really turned up on my reading lists all that much, despite the fact that I do enjoy history a great deal. I suppose the setting might have been something to do with it: a harem in Constantinople in 1599. Not your standard setting for fiction set in Elizabethan times, to be sure. In any case, regardless of whatever reason I have for picking it up, was The Aviary Gate worth the intrigue?
The Aviary Gate is the story of two women separated by 400 years. In 1599, there is Celia Lamprey, a English woman who is sold to the harem of the Ottoman Sultan after she is presumed dead. In the present day, there is Elizabeth Stavely, a student researching Celia’s life as part of her thesis. I personally don’t think that the two separate narratives really worked together. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both very good, very well-written story-lines; I just don’t think they quite mesh together properly. Let me elaborate. In the Celia story-line, the focus is very much on intrigue and mystery, as Celia tries to figure out who poisoned the chief black eunuch, Hassan Aga, and how it could be linked to the English ambassadors outside the palace; the focus occasionally switches to Paul Pindar, an English merchant who was Celia’s betrothed, as he tries to ascertain whether his lost love is in the Sultan’s harem and if she is how he can rescue her from it. All in all, quite exciting stuff. You then have the modern story-line, which is completely different in tone. The main thrust in Elizabeth’s story-line is her trying to escape and recover from an unhealthy relationship with one of the lecturers at the university she attends, as opposed to much actual research; this necessitates a slower tone, as you’re looking at a person’s internal growth and change, as opposed to the more frenetic pace needed for stories about political intrigue. As I said before, both are well-written stories, I just don’t think that they really belong together, considering that they do use wildly different tones and paces; though I did like both stories, I thought that the modern day story lost out somewhat, as it seemed less interesting when compared to the more exotic and exciting Constantinople of 1599.
As for characters, I must reiterate that the modern story suffers for being added on to the historical story, as the modern characters are nowhere near as interesting as the historical ones. The only ones of any real importance are Elizabeth and Marius, because they are the main character and the cause of her emotional growth respectively. Elizabeth is quite irritating at times, as she is quite weak-willed and responds to a relationship that is causing nothing but uncertainty and heartache for her, but is overall a nice character. Marius is your stereotypical unhealthy love interest, charming but ultimately selfish and inconsiderate. The real stars of the book are the characters in the historical plot-line. The main characters of note are probably Celia, Safiye and another character who I can’t discuss without focusing on their role in the central mystery of the plot. Celia is what I would consider a model woman by Elizabethan standards: prim, proper, quite shocked by the customs of the harem and still devoted to the memory of the love that she can’t reach whilst in the harem. Safiye is probably my favourite character in the entire novel, simply because of how cunning and crafty she is. Safiye is the Valide Sultan, the Ottoman equivalent of the Queen Mother, who makes it her business to know the goings-on of every woman in the harem, so that her position of power can stay secure for as long as possible; she is an example of the most fascinating part of the historical setting, namely how an individual can use slavery as a career opportunity by marrying into or creating alliances with important members of the Ottoman court. It is a little unsavoury by today’s terms considering that this is essentially prostitution as well as slavery, but very interesting nonetheless.
Overall, an interesting and well-written book, but the fact that two very different story-lines are included as one narrative drastically weakens what could have been a completely absorbing and intriguing novel. 3.5/5
Next review: A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre.