The Drowning Guard: A Novel of the Ottoman Empire – Linda Lafferty, 2013. Rating: 4/5
Intrigue and passion run rampant in this sumptuous, dark romance set during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.
Esma Sultan, the wealthy and indulged sister of Sultan Mahmud II, slakes her desires on infidel lovers– whom she enjoys for one night only, before having them drowned in the Bosporus.
Ivan Postivich—now Ahmed Kadir—a Serb captured by the Ottomans as a child and conscripted into the elite Janissary cavalry, has been demoted to Esma’s drowning guard. His skill and leadership earned him the envy of the Sultan, and now, stripped of his horses, Ivan is tasked with the clandestine executions of Esma’s discarded lovers.
When guilty nightmares begin to torment Esma, her Greek physician recommends she confess her sins to a priest—or to her giant of a guard, the only other one who shares, and can understand her guilt.
As Esma relates the story of her upbringing in the harem, and stories of her friends and father and brothers, the hostile Ivan gradually begins to see her as a person.
Like Ivan, we begin by feeling contempt for Esma, but soon realize she is a complex and relatable character. She is a fierce protector of women and their rights and truly an activist of her age. In her harem, women do not have to wear face coverings—a freedom unheard of for the time—and are treated with respect. Needless to say, Esma doesn’t quite have the same relationship with men.
Truth be told, I was skeptical about the plotline. This book has been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. But I was more than pleasantly surprised. Actually, I was excitedly surprised. The Drowning Guard is a luxurious, intelligent read.
We are expertly embedded into Istanbul in 1826: a melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity, old customs and growing globalism, yet still governed firmly by the long-seated conquerors. It is also time of suspicion and change: the Janissary revolt and its violent suppression figures strongly in the story. Lafferty excels at invoking lush sensory detail—from the wild rush of the cirit games, down to the flavors of the famous sorbets served at the Sultan’s birthday celebration. We experience it all: evil, plotting eunuchs; exotic harem life; glittering Ottoman palaces; all woven smoothly together and grounded in history. The result is a satisfying romance of unusual depth.
I can’t wait to read more by this author.