Confessions of a Janissary

Written by Nicholas Downing
Review by Cindy Vallar

Thirteen-year-old Mirko Popovic’s curiosity is aroused when Janissaries visit his Serbian village in 1373. They come to collect a special tax: one that takes the best and brightest boys, forces them to convert to Islam, and conscripts them into the elite soldier-slaves of the Ottoman sultan. Becoming one of the chosen is no “honor” for Mirko. The Turks slew his father; all he wants to do is to kill their sultan. But the die is cast, and no sooner does he join than he is forced to safeguard them. He feels like a traitor, but one Janissary shows it is an act of survival.

During his training, Mirko befriends two boys, and they form an unbreakable bond. Together, they walk a fine line between Christian lives once led and their new lives as Muslims. They excel at what they do, but in their hearts, they remain loyal to their homeland. Each forges his own path; instead of killing the sultan, Mirko saves him. That one act leads Mirko to an ultimate betrayal in which he will either survive or die.

Spanning nearly a quarter of a century, this is a story of faith, belief in oneself, treachery, love, and becoming a man. Downing vividly contrasts the Christian and Islamic worlds, drawing readers into the past. They may notice a number of misspellings, missing punctuation, wrong words, and places where historical or cultural details could be better woven into the story, but these do not mar this account of Mirko’s life and struggle to decide who he is and what he believes. Each minor character is unique and well-drawn. In the end, Mirko takes one of the first maxims he learns—Know thy enemy—and implements it with the strategic cunning that is the hallmark of his time as a Janissary.