Jason Goodwin studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and has written books on the history of the Ottoman Empire. His extensive scholarship comes through in The Janissary Tree as he provides an experience rather than simply a read; I was able to "see" and "hear" and "smell" the setting. My only complaint is that I wanted more; I wanted to be more overwhelmed by the setting than I was.
Goodwin not only provides an exotic setting, but also some very colorful characters. One of my favorites is Palewski, the decadent Polish ambassador with no country to represent. Poland belongs to (among others) Russia in 1836, but through some quirk of law the Sultanate continues to support a Polish ambassador. The author has decided to use this bit of history to bring some unexpected humor to his novel. In one scene, Yashim is discussing with Palewski the disappearance of the murder victims. Yashim finds it odd that the victims met with one of the Russian officials shortly before disappearing. Palewski tosses out the world weary response
Meet a Russian -- disappear -- it's a common phenomenon. It happens all the time in Poland.and Yashim replies
But why would they meet a Russian official in the first place? We're practically at war with Russia. If not today, then yesterday and probably tomorrow.
The Janissary Tree is ultimately a story about the clash between tradition and modernity and the dangerous tension that can occur as these two extremes struggle for ascendancy. While the Stambouliots struggle for their future, the politically hungry outsiders (primarily the Russians, French and British) hover like vultures as they wait for the fall of the Ottoman Empire so they can step into the ensuing chaos and gain control.
I would recommend The Janissary Tree to those who like detective stories set in an exotic setting with plenty of intrigue, deceit and corruption. It is a strong beginning to a series and an entertaining read with a bit of history tossed in.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5