Set in the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople in 1599, The Aviary Gate is the story of Celia Lamprey, and Englishwoman sold into slavery after a shipwreck. For two years, her fiancée, Paul Pindar (a secretary to the ambassador) has believed Celia to be dead—until a chance encounter gives him proof that she’s still alive. Celia and Paul’s story is intertwined with that of Elizabeth Staveley, an Oxford DPhil candidate, who investigates Celia’s story in modern-day Istanbul.
Celia’s story is the strongest part of the novel; Elizabeth’s isn’t quite as fleshed out. Maybe it’s because Elizabeth has an almost cold, detached view of her research subject. I also thought that Elizabeth’s romance story line wasn’t well-thought-out, and the emotionally unavailable ex boyfriend gratuitously thrown in there. Maybe he’s a foil for Celia’s fiancée, Paul, in the past? The ending of the novel was a bit strange, too: we’re told what happens, rather than shown. But maybe it’s best to leave that kind of thing to the imagination?
But as I have said, Celia’s story is the best part of the novel, as are the descriptions of life in the harem. This is exactly the kind of novel that inspires the imagination: you can almost smell the scent of jasmine in the air. I love exotic settings such as that of The Aviary Gate, and this book doesn’t disappoint in the least. There’s a healthy mixture here of romance, or danger and intrigue, that I enjoyed very much—Celia never quite knows who she can trust, especially not the Valide Sultan (mother of the sultan) or the Haseki. The characters are well-drawn, and the historical setting seems well-researched and believable. I don’t know very much about the Ottoman empire, but I was both entertained and educated by this novel (for example, I didn’t know that none of the women of the harem were actually Turkish, or that the sultan never married).