The Aviary Gate
Oxford researcher Elizabeth Staveley is intrigued to discover an ancient fragment stuck in a book. The fragment tells of a young Englishwoman in the 16th century who was kidnapped and enslaved in a harem after her father’s ship is wrecked. Elizabeth delves into the history of the then Ottoman Empire, even flying to Istanbul to uncover Celia Lamprey’s story. In a parallel tale set in 1599, intrigue rocks the sultan’s harem when the chief eunuch is found poisoned. A spun sugar comfit, shaped like an English ship, is found by his side. Suspicion is cast on the new English concubine, Celia. The sultan’s mother, the Valide Sultan, struggles to control her world and wants no woman more powerful than she. She uses the pale, golden-haired western girl to entice her son away from his favorite. Docile Celia aches to be free and reunite with her fiancé, merchant Paul Pindar. Pindar is in Constantinople to oversee a gift given to the sultan by Queen Elizabeth I. He learns that Celia may be alive and imprisoned in the harem. But the sultan is all powerful and his women sacred — no one will help Paul find her. Celia tries to elicit aid from another concubine, who gives her a special key to the Aviary Gate. With the Valide spying on her every move, Celia is desperate to arrange her escape.
With exotic settings and erotic rituals, this novel puts you into the hidden world of the harem. Descriptions of 16th-century Constantinople and modern Istanbul were vivid. I enjoyed the story, but the modern heroine remained underdeveloped, and I wished the author had told Celia’s tale alone.