The 2007 Edgar Allan Poe award winner for Best Novel is Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree. Goodwin is an accomplished writer of non-fiction, but this is his first novel. Two of Goodwin's previous books, Lords of the Horizion: A History of the Ottoman Empire and On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul, cover related topics and his strong background in place and time adds to the realism of The Janissary Tree.
The Janissary Tree is the first in a series of mystery novels set in early 19th Century Istanbul. It features Yashim, a eunuch with ties to the Ottoman Court but not belonging to the court itself. Yashim is charming, skilled with language (his own and others) and especially talented at blending unnoticeably into the background . This novel takes place ten years after the Janissaries were replaced by the Sultan's New Guard, right before a major review of the Guard before the Sultan which is expected to coincide with an announcement by the Sultan of major and controversial political changes. Four promising members of the New Guard disappear and the first reappears, a victim of murder. At the same time, there is a major theft and murder in the Sultan's harem. Yashim is asked to look into these events. In the process, Yashim's friendly yet self-effacing personality takes him (and the reader) into all areas and social spheres of Istanbul.
I found this novel engrossing both as someone who enjoys mysteries and someone interested in the culture of Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire. The action was realistic and although you couldn't address this subject without reference to sex and violence, I found it tastefully done and appropriate for the context. I really grew to like the character of Yashim and look forward to reading about his further adventures.
The Janissary Tree is the BellaOnline Middle Eastern Culture Book Group book of the month for May 2007. Read or join the discussion!
Goodwin, Jason. The Janissary Tree. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006.
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