A historical novel dramatizes the Ottoman Empire’s struggle to survive in the late 19th century.
In the 1870s, Europeans derisively joked that the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe.” Plagued by debt, government corruption, and sectarian conflict, the once-proud power seemed to face a bleak future, a perilous set of circumstances intelligently captured by Gall (Of Mouse and Magic, 2011). Mithat Pasha, the president of the Council of State, conspires to depose Sultan Abdülaziz, a politically useless and profligate failure. But his successor, Murat, turns out to be emotionally unstable, and so his stepbrother is chosen to ascend to the throne, becoming Sultan Abdülhamit II. Mithat, a progressive reformer, aspires to remodel the government to emulate the British parliamentary model, based on a new constitution, hoping that an infusion of democratic representation will promote civic solidarity: “We need to build a government that inspires the people to be loyal to the empire, rather than to their ethnic and religious community, their millet.” But Abdülhamit has other ideas and is insistent that any reform leave his autocratic clout intact. In addition, he worries that Mithat, who is highly regarded by European leaders, is more an ambitious rival than a trusted confidant. Abdülhamit gives his consent to the drafting of a constitution and the founding of a parliament but also strips Mithat of his duties and banishes him to Smyrna. Meanwhile, the possibility of war with Russia becomes ever more likely as that nation encourages conflict between the empire’s Muslims and Christians to trigger a pretext for a land-grabbing invasion. Gall’s historical expertise is notable, and he artfully brings to life the political intrigue of an empire sliding into irrelevance. The Ottoman Empire emerges as a kind of protagonist all its own, eager to become strengthened by its embrace of modernity and the West but also anxious about surrendering its cultural and religious identity. A subplot that follows Abdülhamit’s wife, Flora, a Belgian-born Christian who settles in Istanbul, converts to the Muslim faith, and devotes herself to helping disenfranchised refugees, poignantly illustrates the complexity of the empire’s religious fissures.
A magnificently researched and dramatically captivating tale of a troubled empire.