This received quite mixed reviews on here and I had reservations when I began reading. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised and found it a very enjoyable read with plenty of historical interest and atmospheric descriptions.
There are two time frames used in the novel; the current day story of historical researcher, Elizabeth Staveley, is used as a tool to provide the background to the more interesting historical section. Elizabeth finds a fragment of a manuscript suggesting that Celia, an English girl, may have been ship-wrecked by pirates at the end of the sixteenth century and subsequently sold into the harem of Sultan Mehmet III of Constantinople (now Istanbul). The novel follows a few months in Celia's life in 1599. Having been bought by the Sultan's favourite concubine, as a gift for her mother-in-law, we follow Celia's rise within the harem and the intrigue and sceming that goes on within those walls.
Paul Pindar is her fiance and assumes her drowned in the ship-wreck, until his cook, John Carew, chances to see her while visiting in the palace. Both the historical and the modern time frames then follow these characters in a search for the outcome of this love match. Did Paul manage to rescue Celia from the harem? What were their ultimate fates?
While parts of this novel were excellent (such as the description of the gelding of a young boy so that he might become a much prized eunuch), other parts were less well written. The modern story, in particular, had a rather chick-lit feel to it.
In discussion, our book group hilighted many incidences of dubious behaviour or inconsistencies, and I have to admit that these criticisms were valid. Some of these instances did detract from my reading, but mostly my enjoyment of the novel allowed me to ignore them. I did find the ending a bit weak though.
Paul Pindar and John Carew also feature in Hickman's latest novel, The Pindar Diamond, set in Venice, and I look forward to reading this in the near future.