The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel

The Oracle of Stamboul: A Novel

by Michael David Lukas

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Set in the heart of the exotic Ottoman Empire during the first years of its chaotic decline, Michael David Lukas’ elegantly crafted, utterly enchanting debut novel follows a gifted young girl who dares to charm a sultan—and change the course of history, for the empire and the world. An enthralling literary adventure, perfect for readers entranced by the mixture of historical fiction and magical realism in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lukas’ evocative tale of prophesy, intrigue, and courage unfolds with the subtlety of a Turkish mosaic and the powerful majesty of an epic for the ages.  

Editorial Reviews

Eleonara Cohen's introduction to nineteenth century Ottoman Empire intrigues began as a stowaway. From her childhood trunk hiding place, Cohen graduates steadily to bigger things and wider scenes. After her father dies, she is adopted by an influential insider; then under the tutelage of an American minister and educator, she becomes a valued, if somewhat reluctant advisor to the Sultan himself. Michael David Lukas's debut novel captures the atmosphere of this hinge-point in Mideast history. Exotic; romantic; suspenseful.

Publishers Weekly

A girl changes the course of the Ottoman empire in Lukas's middling debut. Eleonora Cohen--born in 1877 Romania, prophesied to alter history, and gifted with great intelligence--stows away at age eight to follow her father to Stamboul. Her first weeks there are a whirlwind of beautiful new dresses and cultural experiences, but the idyllic adventure takes a terrible twist after her father is killed in an accident and Eleonora is taken in by her father's wealthy and politically slippery friend. She proves to be a quick study, and once her tutor alerts the palace of Eleonora's immense intelligence, she finds herself in attendance at the sultan's court, commenting on a political standoff between the Ottoman empire, Russia, and Germany. As the sultan's interest in her grows, so, too, does her reputation and importance, though Eleonora is unsure if her new role is what she wants from life. The backdrop is nicely done, but Lukas can't quite get his characters to pop or the plot to click; indeed, the buildup of Eleonora's oracle-like powers culminates in a disappointing fizzle. It's well intentioned, but flatly executed. (Feb.)

San Francisco magazine

[An] impressive debut novel.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

A gem of a first novel…an appealing blend of magical and historical realism…This is a polished literary work that will appeal to a wide readership.

Siobhan Fallon

An enchanting, gorgeous read . . . Lukas captures the scents and sounds, the vivid beauty, the subtle intrigue and simultaneous naivety, of the Ottoman Empire unaware of its imminent demise.

Reif Larsen

A stunning debut . . . Lukas has managed to create an instant classic that feels as if it should be retroactively slipped into the great libraries of the old world.

THE ORACLE OF STAMBOUL is one of those debuts that defies the norm.

Jane Ciabattari

Beguiling. . . . Lukas veers from the tried-and-true, making The Oracle of Stamboul a novel that offers delightful surprises.

Today's Zaman

An enchanting literary debut…A charming tale of passion and intrigue…that could be read in one sitting, spine-tingling descriptions will transport readers to another place and time.

Good Housekeeping

A magical debut.

Vanity Fair

Michael David Lukas charms in his debut.

Read All Day

The Oracle of Stamboul is a delight, a gem of a first novel.

Book Beast

In his enchanting debut novel, Michael David Lukas captures the mystical world of the Ottoman Empire.”-

Mercury News

A beautifully written debut novel. . . . Political intrigue, historical upheaval and Eastern mysticism come together in surprising ways as Lukas brings the book to a poignant conclusion tinged with magical realism.

...this riveting debut novel not only captures the atmosphere of the exotic European crossroads but also introduces a young girl who is utterly captivating.

San Francisco Chronicle

Lukas . . . brings a raconteur’s sense of storytelling, a traveler’s eye for color and a scholar’s sense of history to his first novel. . . . Lukas has given us a Turkish delight.

Booklist (starred review)

The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut.

San Francisco Chronicle

Lukas . . . brings a raconteur’s sense of storytelling, a traveler’s eye for color and a scholar’s sense of history to his first novel. . . . Lukas has given us a Turkish delight.

San Francisco Magazine

"[An] impressive debut novel."


"The exotic sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Turkey spring vividly to life in Lukas’ promising debut."

Library Journal

Eleonora Cohen's mother dies after giving birth to her in the Romanian city of Constantţa on the Black Sea in 1877. The child is raised by her doting father, Yakob, a rug merchant, and her cold and calculating aunt. By the time she is four, it is evident that Eleonora is a child prodigy; she reads and speaks several languages. When her father leaves for a trip to Stamboul (as Istanbul was then known in the Ottoman Empire), Eleonora, age eight, stows away on the ship. In Stamboul, Eleonora and her father visit her father's business partner, Turkish aristocrat Moncef Bey, and then tragedy strikes again. Meanwhile, Eleonora's extraordinary genius has come to the attention of the sultan himself, who invites her to his palace and seeks her advice. Soon rumors of the child's powers are flying around the city, and Eleonora has to make a very adult decision. VERDICT This first novel by a promising young writer is both vivid historical fiction and a haunting fable. It will appeal to a wide range of readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA

Kirkus Reviews

A lyrical debut novel of life in 19th-century Turkey, focusing on the effect a young prodigy (aka The Oracle of Stamboul) has on the political and cultural leaders of the time.

Born in 1877, Eleonora Cohen enters a world of tragedy, for her mother Leah dies in childbirth, and her father, the businessman Yakob, is scarcely prepared to raise a young girl on his own. Enter Leah's sister, the officious Ruxandra, who marries her brother-in-law and prepares to raise the child. When Eleonora is eight, her father goes to Stamboul—Istanbul—to sell rugs, and Eleonora secrets herself in the ship hold to be with her father. In the city she has an opportunity to further her considerable education. She demonstrates her penetrating mind by watching her father play backgammon, and then playing (and winning) her first few games. Eventually, she becomes a polymath and winds up learning seven languages. When her father dies in a ship explosion, she is left in the hands of her father's friend, Moncef Bey, who's both charmed and amazed by her erudition. Word of this precocious child gets to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the Caliph of Islam, who tests her understanding and then begins relying on her for political advice. Though cautioned by Jamaludin Pasha, the Grand Vizier, to be careful taking advice from an eight-year-old, the sultan is impressed by her shrewd political evaluations and begins to make foreign-policy decisions based on her judgment. In fact, he sends her trunks of documents to study, for the Ottoman Empire is caught on shaky ground between the German Empire and Tsarist Russia, the latter sometimes openly attacking Turkish troops. It turns out that Eleonora is indeed an oracle, perhaps the incarnation of a divine prophecy made many centuries before, for certain omens seem to have heralded her birth and young life. She ultimately vanishes, leaving almost no trace of her influence.

A quiet but passionate novel that beautifully conveys the flavor of Turkish culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062085436
Publisher: HarperCollins e-books
Publication date: 02/08/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 596,975
File size: 819 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Oracle of Stamboul

A Novel
By Michael David Lukas


Copyright © 2011 Michael David Lukas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-201209-8

Chapter One

Eleonora Cohen came into this world on a Thursday, late in the summer of 1877. Those who rose early that morning would recall noticing a flock of purple-and-white hoopoes circling above the harbor, looping and darting about as if in an attempt to mend a tear in the firmament. Whether or not they were successful, the birds eventually slowed their swoop and settled in around the city, on the steps of the courthouse, the red tile roof of the Constanta Hotel, and the bell tower atop St. Basil's Academy. They roosted in the lantern room of the lighthouse, the octagonal stone minaret of the mosque, and the forward deck of a steamer coughing puffs of smoke into an otherwise clear horizon. Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped in along the rain gutters of the governor's mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church. In the trees around Yakob and Leah Cohen's house the flock seemed especially excited, chattering, flapping their wings, and hopping from branch to branch like a crowd of peasants lining the streets of the capital for an imperial parade. The hoopoes would probably have been regarded as an auspicious sign, were it not for the unfortunate events that coincided with Eleonora's birth.

Early that morning, the Third Division of Tsar Alexander II's Royal Cavalry rode in from the north and assembled on a hilltop overlooking the town square: 612 men, 537 horses, three cannons, two dozen dull gray canvas tents, a field kitchen, and the yellow-and-black-striped standard of the tsar. They had been riding for the better part of a fortnight with reduced rations and little rest, through Kiliya, Tulcea, and Babadag, the blueberry marshlands of the Danube Delta, and vast wheat fields left fallow since winter. Their ultimate objective was Pleven, a trading post in the bosom of the Danubian Plain where General Osman Pasha and seven thousand Ottoman troops were attempting to make a stand. It would be an important battle, perhaps even a turning point in the war, but Pleven was still ten days off and the men of the Third Division were restless.

Laid out below them like a feast, Constanta had been left almost entirely without defenses. Not more than a dozen meters from the edge of the hilltop lay the rubble of an ancient Roman wall. In centuries past, these dull, rose-colored stones had protected the city from wild boars, bandits, and the Thracian barbarians who periodically attempted to raid the port. Rebuilt twice by Rome and once again by the Byzantines, the wall was in complete disrepair when the Ottomans arrived in Constanta at the end of the fifteenth century. And so it was left to crumble, its better stones carted off to build roads, palaces, and other walls around other, more strategic cities. Had anyone thought to restore the wall, it might have shielded the city from the brutality of the Third Division, but in its current state it was little more than a stumbling block.

All that morning and late into the afternoon, the men of the Third Division rode rampant through the streets of Constanta, breaking shop windows, terrorizing stray dogs, and pulling down whatever statues they could find. They torched the governor's mansion, ransacked the courthouse, and shattered the stained glass above the entrance to St. Basil's Academy. The goldsmith's was gutted, the cobbler's picked clean, and the dry-goods store strewn with broken eggs and tea. They shattered the front window of Yakob Cohen's carpet shop and punched holes in the wall with their bayonets. Apart from the Orthodox church, which at the end of the day stood untouched, as if God himself had protected it, the library was the only municipal building that survived the Third Division unscathed. Not because of any special regard for knowledge. The survival of Constanta's library was due entirely to the bravery of its keeper. While the rest of the towns people cowered under their beds or huddled together in basements and closets, the librarian stood boldly on the front steps of his domain, holding a battered copy of Eugene Onegin above his head like a talisman. Although they were almost exclusively illiterate, the men of the Third Division could recognize the shape of their native Cyrillic and that, apparently, was enough for them to spare the building.

Meanwhile, in a small gray stone house near the top of East Hill, Leah Cohen was heavy in the throes of labor. The living room smelled of witch hazel, alcohol, and sweat. The linen chest was thrown open and a pile of iodine-stained bedsheets lay on the table. Because the town's sole trained physician was otherwise disposed, Leah was attended by a pair of Tartar midwives who lived in a village nearby. Providence had brought them to the Cohens' doorstep at the moment they were needed most. They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon. It was a prophecy, they said, that their last king had given on his deathwatch, but there was no time to explain. They asked to be shown to the bedroom. They asked for clean sheets, alcohol, and boiling water. Then they closed the door behind them. Every twenty minutes or so, the younger of the two scuttled out with an empty pot or an armful of soiled sheets. Apart from these brief forays, the door remained closed.

With nothing for him to do and nothing else to occupy his mind, Leah's husband, Yakob, gave himself over to worry. A large man with unruly black hair and bright blue eyes, he busied himself tugging at the ends of his beard, shuffling his receipts, and packing his pipe.


Excerpted from The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas Copyright © 2011 by Michael David Lukas. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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