Following the life of an invented apprentice to the actual Ottoman Empire architect Sinan, Turkish novelist Shafak offers a liberal interpretation of Islam that's bound to create controversy, as her previous books have (Honor, 2013, etc.).
In 1540, Jahan, a 12-year-old runaway from Anatolia, arrives in Istanbul by ship with a baby white elephant he names Chota—“little”—a gift to Sultan Suleiman from Hindustan. The ship’s amoral British captain has forced Jahan, who knows nothing about elephants, to pretend to be Chota’s Indian trainer so he can steal valuables from the sultan's palace. Lonely Jahan loves Chota and quickly learns to take excellent care of him. Drawn to the elephant’s charms, the sultan’s young daughter, Mihrimah, begins visiting Chota’s barn. Soon, she and Jahan strike up a friendship that evolves into a chaste love that lasts through her marriage until her death. Far more complex and intriguing is Jahan’s relationship to the architect, Sinan, whose philosophy lies at the heart of the novel: “I work to honour the divine gift. Every artisan and artist enters into a covenant with the divine.” Sinan recognizes Jahan’s untapped abilities when he and Chota help build a bridge during one of Suleiman’s wars. Sinan arranges for Jahan’s education and makes him one of his four apprentices. As both apprentice to the sultan’s chief architect and trainer of the sultan’s prize elephant, Jahan observes the glory of the Ottoman Empire, the pageantry and brutality, over a span of almost 100 years. He experiences the plague, many wars, and the rise and fall of several sultans. Shafak acknowledges the harem system and slavery, but Jahan’s Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city made up of many nationalities and religions, all more or less getting along.
With manufactured intrigues and lukewarm romance, plot is not Shafak’s strong point. What she offers is panoramic historical fiction rich with facts, atmosphere and occasional whimsy.