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This book will inspire the reader to learn more about the Ottoman Empire

The Mapmaker's Daughter - Katherine Nouri Hughes

There are two books with the same name, both covering similar historic time periods separated by a century. The reviews have been confused by some, believing they have read the one and not the other. One book is new, from August 2017, and the other one is from 2014. In the book written three years earlier, it is the late 15th century, and a young Jewish Converso holds to her religion at great danger to herself. In this current book, it is about the middle of the 16th century, and a young Venetian girl converts to Islam to protect herself after being captured by Suleiman, the Magnificent.

This novel is about Christian born Cecilia Baffo Veniero, daughter of a brilliant, unmarried mapmaker. She lived in the Venetian Republic until she was captured by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Like her mother, she was well educated. Her intelligence and background was appreciated by Suleiman, and he continued to educate her. After her conversion to Islam, he gave her as bride to his sons. She became known as Nurbanu and rose to an unprecedented position of power for a woman, especially one born out of wedlock. Her ultimate influence, real and imagined, over the Ottoman Empire was illustrated in the novel as Nurbanu lay ill and dying. She was convinced by her long time friend and confidante, Esther, a Jew, to relate the story of her life and rise to power, for historical review, and to help her understand the arc of her life and its meaning. It is fiction combined with history, and it is filled with references to her relationships and historic events of moment.

Although she was a preteen when stolen from her home, she was far more mature. The author portrayed her life and the times in which she lived, and included many interesting facts interspersed in the narrative concerning the era in which Jews, Christians and Moslems were alternately persecuted in the period of time that the Ottoman Empire grew successfully and provided the seeds of ideas and technology still used today. Often, a greater knowledge of the period seemed to be assumed by the author, and so the thread of the history was not developed fully enough for someone not well versed in the subject. It was occasionally confusing, as her influence and life were explored, essentially forcing the reader to do further research in order to fully comprehend the subject matter. I believe it is essential to read this fictional memoir as a confession, or search for answers and explanations about the incidents occurring and the decisions made, during her life. It is an introspective look into her devotion to herself, her children, and the kingdom.

I liked the design of the book jacket. I think having a jacket which doubles as a book mark is a great idea. In addition, the heft of the book was very comfortable. However, the choice of paper made it difficult to turn the pages. They were too thin and fragile. Also, while the introductory material was appreciated, it was lengthy and a bit cerebral, making it also somewhat distracting. A lot of complicated history was packed into a few pages. Still, it was better to have the facts, than not to have them at all.

It took me a long time to finish reading this book. The writing style, while often poetic and eloquent, was also difficult to follow, at times. The sentence structure sometimes seemed convoluted. Information was offered, but not always fully explained. A thought was introduced and seemed to come from nowhere and go nowhere. Events were mentioned and dropped without complete context. 

Fortunately there was a summary of the history in the beginning of the book and also a character list, map of the empire, as it progressed, and a partial list of the genealogy. Still, as I read, I felt compelled to do further research since some information presented was incomplete. The fact that the book inspired me to learn more about a period of time and an empire I had previously very little knowledge of and was glad to learn more about, does speak well of the novel.