13th century Turkey: The Sultana Mahperi was born Maryam, and given in marriage as a peace concession from her father, the conquered king of Armenia to the Sultan of the Seljuk Empire. During her lifetime as wife and mother to sultans, she built mosques and caravan stops to develop important trade routes. Those sites’ fabulous architecture captivated the author and inspired this novel, but it is not enough to sustain the story.
Mahperi’s husband, the Sultan Alaeddin, cuts a dramatic, if overblown, figure early on, at least until he takes a second wife he likes better. This betrayal and countless others might have made for a good romantic tragedy, except that there is no personal growth in Mahperi’s victimization, only despair and architectural projects. These are described in exhausting detail; the most passionately told passages are those where the Sultana is closeted with her architects, discussing which direction the entrance of a compound should face and where exactly to site the warehouses. Meanwhile, the Mongols chip away at the edges of the empire. She is powerless to stop an evil courtier from manipulating her husband to ruin and corrupting her son, and Mahperi fades to obscurity. Only her buildings survive; one of these even narrates several passages between chapters. Of possible interest to those interested in early Turkish architecture.