The Aviary Gate: Katie Hickman

★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book I

This appealed for two reasons. You may remember that some months ago I read the third book in this trilogy, The House at Bishopsgate (not realising at the time that it was a third book). Impressed by its quality, I was keen to read the earlier novels. Secondly, Hickman’s insight into the world of 16th-century Constantinople promised to reveal the answer to a question that intrigues me. What exactly happens in a harem? Yes, that, obviously, but what about the rest of the time? Surely it can’t be all about lying on a chaise longue while eunuchs fan you and feed you grapes? Well, according to this book, it’s also about poison, vaunting ambition, intrigue and the gradual erosion of everything you know beyond the walls of the ironically-named House of Felicity.

I should say, upfront, that The Aviary Gate didn’t quite live up to my expectations. This, I’m sure, is partly due to the circumstances in which I came to read it. Thanks to having read the third book, I knew the characters and had looked forward to meeting them in a younger guise here. The House at Bishopsgate was pretty straight historical fiction, and so I was rather surprised to find that The Aviary Gate involved two intertwined plots, one in the 16th century (with the characters I know) and one in the present day, following an academic as she researches them. That means, obviously, that we split our time between the two and I couldn’t help longing for more about the 16th century…

Elizabeth Stavely has submitted a PhD proposal on the experiences of Western women in the Ottoman sultan’s harem. One tantalising fragment of information has brought her to the Elizabethan merchant-venturer Paul Pindar, whose intended (and fictional) wife Celia just may have been captured at sea and taken into the harem. While studying books from the Pindar Bequest at the Bodleian Library, Elizabeth finds a fragment of a letter tucked away between pages, scented with sea-salt and roses. It puts her on the trail of a remarkable story of a British embassy, a superb organ and the enigmatic figure of a woman who – as so often in history – remains just beyond her ken.

Meanwhile, back in 1599, the House of Felicity at the Topkapi Palace witnesses a terrible crime. Hassan Aga, the Chief Black Eunuch of the harem and a trusted associate of the Valide Sultan (i.e. the sultan’s mother) is found poisoned. As he clings to life, the effects of the act spread outward across the harem, even before his indisposition is announced. In a closed world of women, where status depends entirely on the Sultan’s favour, intrigues are stirring. The Valide Sultan is at odds with Haseki Gulay, the Sultan’s favourite. Sharp and ambitious young girls hope to unseat the Haseki with their own melting charms. And someone, somewhere, is an attempted murderer. Into this shark-infested world of alliance, obedience and fear come two young women: Kaya and Ayshe, one as blond as the other is dark, and bound together by a loyal friendship. For they were captured from the same ship, back when they both bore different names, when one was Annetta and the other Celia. Unknown to them, just across the Bosphorus in the foreigner’s enclave of Pera, the merchant Paul Pindar waits with his servant Carew for the day when they can present a wondrous gift to the Sultan: a mechanical organ of astonishing intricacy. Can love win the day – or, in the regimented world of the harem, is there no space for love?

I confess that my heart always sinks when a historical novel opens with an academic finding a hitherto unnoticed manuscript hidden away in a library. Yes, I know it worked with Possession and it worked with The Name of the Rose, but it’s become something of a cliche of the historical-fiction genre. You’d expect me to be sympathetic towards the story of a historian making an exciting discovery, but in this case it just makes me twitch a bit – especially because Elizabeth soon starts to have visions of Celia and feels a deep spiritual connection to her. I just didn’t feel it added anything to the story and, although Elizabeth did grow on me as time passed, I still think the novel would’ve been much more gripping had we just seen Celia’s own story without the earnest framing narrative.

At the beginning, I also had a great deal of trouble not seeing the plot as a version of The Abduction from the Seraglio (for important reasons, it becomes less like it as we go on). After all, Pindar relies on the wiles of his slightly disreputable servant Carew, while Celia is supported by the feisty Annetta, and anxiously dreads her summons to the Sultan’s bed. Entirely my fault, of course, but that meant that I again found it harder to get into the story because I kept seeing the characters with the traits of their operatic parallels.

It’s an odd book. I’m pretty sure that, when Hickman wrote it, she didn’t envision it being the first part of a trilogy. Have you read it? If so, what did you make of it? To me it feels like a standalone novel, with its dual storylines – one of which dies off after this book, never to be resuscitated – and it didn’t have quite the depth or richness of The House at Bishopsgate. Having said that, there were some sumptuous moments, where it felt as if you were peeking into a picture by Liotard – all jewelled slippers and caps of gold tissue and unbound hair. It gives a hint of Hickman’s abilities, but I think The House at Bishopsgate shows her talents off to better effect. I’m still going to read the middle book of the trilogy, The Pindar Diamond, in the hope of joining up the two narratives and finding out whether the Aviary Gate will ever open again…

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