This book makes pleasant reading and provides the tourist in Istanbul with some interesting historical background covering the 15th-early 20th centuries, but the narrative is too linear and includes very few analyses of why things were happening that way at any particular time. Moreover, the title is misleading since the descriptions of life in the Topkapi Sarayi tend to be skimped especially for the earlier centuries. The book will thus fail to satisfy the general reader seeking lively information about palace life in Istanbul. At the same time the historical account will fail to meet the serious scholar's quest for an in-depth account of the historical process.
John Freely certainly loves his subject: his description of Istanbul and its glorious architecture is sensitive and touching. However, his book ultimately fails in its objective: it is neither an in-depth history of the Seraglio, the Harem where the Sultan's wives lived, nor is it a good description of the "private lives of the sultans", as the subtitle of the book promises.
Throughout, the author seems undecided on whether he should follow themes, or just pursue a chronological narrative. The result is a mixture of both, and this remains unsatisfactory. John Freely's habit of applying the same format to the description of every sultan - how many years he spent in the "Cage", hidden away while he awaited his turn at succcession to the throne, how many children he fathered and where he is burried - makes absolutely no sense and is utterly tedious.
Those interested in a bit of "thrill" about sexual dalliances will get nothing from this book. And those interested in a serious, "personal" history of the Osmanli dynasty which ruled the Turkish empire will not be satisfied either.