The Red Apple
A Thracian boy is conscripted into the Ottoman Janissaries. The author presents something of the life course of soldiers in this elite corps before concluding the story two decades later as Constantinople falls into their hands in 1453.
I am the first person to say that the Western world could use more books that shed light on the east, and the Janissaries are an attractive subject. I cannot recommend this book, however.
Almost anything that can go wrong in storytelling does so here. The characters, especially the women, are cardboard. Entitling the book “The Red Apple,” meant to be an emblem of a life’s goal (in the Conqueror Mehmed’s case, Constantinople), only underlines the ironic fact that our characters’ goals are ill-defined, too frequently changed, or unsubstantiated. No scene is drawn so as to make us find ourselves in it. What I call the “anthropology” is missing: we don’t get a good sense of what people eat or wear or what grows on the hillside.
Usually I protest the beginning-writer advice of “show don’t tell,” “avoid adverbs,” “don’t switch point of view erratically” and “avoid the passive” lorded over our fiction. In skillful hands, any of this can work. There are, however, reasons for these rules, which The Red Apple amply illustrates. “Show don’t tell” is particularly important in battle scenes, I’d say.
What usually happens in The Red Apple is that some historical event happens off screen. Someone else then brings it in for our hero’s vague rumination. Most serious of all is the poor timing and pacing—we’re zapped here and there with no focus for our sympathies, without proper preparation to resonate. Who could imagine such tedium in a book where Vlad Dracul makes a cameo appearance?