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Wednesday, April 26, 2017


[For information on the upcoming May 9 book launch for Sarah Shoemaker's Mr. Rochester, click here.]

The protagonist Nurbanu, known also as Valide Sultan, begins her story on Monday, November 7, and finishes it a month later, on December 7. In between she gives us an account of her life, as we travel with her through the sixth century of the Common Era.

The eleven-year-old girl, Cecilia Baffo Veniero, first loses her mother in Venice in the year 1537 and following that trauma, nine weeks and three days later, is abducted by Barbarossa, Admiral of the Fleet for the Sulvan Sulieman of the Ottoman Empire and delivered, after a long sea voyage, to the sultan’s harem. Sulieman does not, however, take the girl for his concubine. He has other plans for Cecilia and begins by giving her a new name: Nurbanu. Her father’s aristocratic background and the girl’s own extensive education give her special status in the sultan’s eyes.

Both readers of history and of fiction will find this novel engrossing. For me it was a plunge into an exotic world of the past. Nurbanu herself makes major transitions -- from Europe to Asia Minor, from Christianity to Islam, from a protected girlhood to a womanhood charged with responsibilities and extreme challenges. An important theme in the novel is that of fratricide, imposed by law on the sultan’s family to create an unambiguous line of succession and obviate civil war.

Less problematic aspects of sixth-century Turkey are nevertheless also fascinating to a modern reader. These include the sultanate itself but also the state of science 1500 years ago. Cecilia’s mother, also highly educated, was a gifted mapmaker, and maps were an important part of science in those times. In the sphere of mechanics, clocks and navigational devices were wonders of the world. Books and libraries were uncommon and highly valued.

This is the author’s first novel, and it is an ambitious one that succeeds. A brief preface on “Historical Context” is helpful in setting the scene, and the Selected Genealogy of key characters was absolutely crucial to my understanding. I referred to it often, particularly in the early chapters when I was still finding my way around in the family generations.

I don’t read many historical novels but am glad this one came my way. It took me to a far distant era and foreign world, shedding light on a very different culture and its ways through compelling characters facing universal human problems: Who am I? Who is my family? What is my place in the world, whom can I trust, and what should I do?

The Mapmaker’s Daughter: The Confessions
       Of Nurbanu Sultan, 1525-1583
by Katherine Nouri Hughes
To be released August 2017
Paper, 368pp

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