The Architect’s Apprentice has the most beautiful cover. It’s a book cover that promises a rich and intricate story, full of mystery and love and loss in exotic and far away lands. We live in an age of lies, but author Elif Shafak delivers on the cover’s promise.
Her protagonist Jahan, also lived an age of lies, 16th century Istanbul, the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire. Jahan is himself a liar and a thief, yet the mahout who comes to be mentored by the official architect of the Sultan seems to stand above most of those around him. A nominal Muslim, his only moral compass is the unwavering loyalty of his heart toward his personal trinity: the gentle elephant in his care, his wise master the architect, and the beautiful, unattainable daughter of the Sultan.
The Architect’s Apprentice brushes up against moral questions on every page, but I could not read it with the critic’s eye for themes and messages. The two-page prologue magically transformed me into the young girls who hungrily devoured novels set in distant lands. The Architect’s Apprentice is that most wondrous of things, a Good Story.
I have always yearned to see the world. As a child I could only do so between the pages of a book. But those bookish travels are still as real to me in some ways as my trips that required a passport instead of a library card. As all Good Stories do, the Architect’s Apprentice evoked fond memories of vicarious travels past. In the Sultan I recognized the Tisroc from childhood readings of C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy. The intrigues of the seraglio were strangely, and yet necessarily similar to the intrigues of another, distant complex of power, the Forbidden City of Pearl S. Buck’s Imperial Woman. There were even echoes of Goldeneye. And of course, the setting was as much a character as the people. Istanbul had all the grit and passion of the Silk Road cities in Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose and the mishmash of people and cultures in Birds Without Wings. Yet I doubt that Shafak was thinking about any of these stories when she wrote the Architect’s Apprentice.
Reading The Architect’s Apprentice was every bit as immersive as one could want from historical fiction. It wasn’t flawless; as delightful as the gypsies were, their fairy godmother-like role in Jahan’s life was insufficiently explained. Deus ex Romany, I guess. I also couldn’t understand why the woman who was called a witch only because she was so old was actually able to lay a curse.
But if these were gaps in the story, they were well compensated by richness of the world that Shafak built around a few historical characters and buildings; the loving yet clear-eyed portrayal of the city at the heart of one of Western history’s most overlooked empires; and characters who will reside in memory alongside humans I have actually known.
As we move into VIDA season, and with the Read Harder challenge popping up in all my feeds, I was also pleased to note that Shafak is a non-American female author. Although the book was written in English, it was first published in Turkey (Shafak divides her time between Turkey and England). I’m not sure where that puts this book in terms of keeping score, but hers is a voice that would not have been heard in Jahan’s time – or in 1980’s America when I was growing up and reading all the stories whose memories it evokes in me. I’m grateful that I can read her work now.