A captured Venetian encounters a strange blend of civilization and barbarism as she attains the highest rank possible for a woman in the Ottoman Empire.
As Nurbanu, nee Cecilia Baffo Veniero, queen mother and former sultaness, lies dying, she writes down the story of her life. Born of a never-legalized union between a Venetian mapmaking prodigy, Violante, and a nobleman, Cecilia is doted on by her maternal grandfather and studies science with her mother’s teacher, Egnatius. This idyll is interrupted by Violante’s death by drowning. At age 12, Cecilia is sent to live on her father’s fiefdom, Paros island. Shortly thereafter, invading Turks abduct her. Arriving at the harem of the Ottoman emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, Cecilia, renamed Nurbanu, finds that she has been fast-tracked for success in her new home: apparently her captors are well-aware of her erudition and her ties to the upper echelons of their most intractable foe, Venice. With Suleiman’s blessing, she is schooled alongside the crown prince, Mehmed, with whom she falls in love. When Mehmed is killed by wasps, Suleiman appoints Nurbanu the consort of his next heir, Selim, and although the prince is grossly corpulent and a drunkard, affection grows between them. When she gives birth to a son, Murad, she is promoted to wife and endowed with a huge fortune. When death ends Suleiman’s 46-year reign, Selim becomes sultan, and Nurbanu, now sultaness, is embroiled in the Ottoman dynasty’s ruthless method of ensuring orderly succession: brothers and half brothers of the heir apparent must be killed, a rule complicated by the existence of harems. Suleiman had commanded Nurbanu to make sure Murad would go unchallenged; thus when Selim starts impregnating concubines, it is her job to eliminate any male children. The resulting moral quandary still plagues Nurbanu on her deathbed. Although Nurbanu is portrayed as a strong woman, the constraints of her milieu rob her of true choice, which renders her struggles less compelling and the plot less suspenseful. However, Hughes marshals her extensive research well, mining the known facts for sensory details that never fail to engage.
A fascinating evocation of the major players of the Ottoman renaissance.