A Thousand and One Nights gets a genderswap in Linda Lafferty’s historical novel The Drowning Guard. Set against the intrigue and glittering façade of the Ottoman Empire, it tells the story of Esma Sultan, sister of Sultan Mahmoud II, and one of the most powerful women of his reign.
Esma Sultan has always been the favored daughter and sister, but she shares a terrible secret with a Janissary by the name of Ahmed Kadir, her drowning guard. Each night, she takes a lover, and in the morning, it is Ahmed Kadir who takes the discarded young men to their deaths in the Bosphorous. Esma suffers day and night with remorse over what she has done, and she orders Ahmed Kadir to act as her confessor and keep her occupied during the lonely nights. Each night, Esma tells Ahmed part of a story, keeping him in suspense so that he might return to her. But as Ahmed dedicates himself in service to Esma, tensions are boiling between Mahmoud, who is intent on bringing Western ways to the empire, and the Janissaries, who seek to maintain the status quo. In the middle of it is Esma, a very intelligent and educated in her own right, who uses her position to better the lives of the young women taken as slaves by bringing them into her household and allowing them to live in her harem as free women. As the story unfolds, Ahmed begins to see that not everything is all as is appears, and it causes him to question what he holds as truths and to act so drastically that it will alter his life and the lives of those around him forever.
Lafferty’s prose is rich and evocative, and she brings the sights and smells of early nineteenth-century Istanbul to life. The characters are fully realized and as complex as the society they live in. The Ottoman court is just as full of intriguing, scheming nobles and officials as any European court, and the emperor is just as intent on keeping his position of power as any European monarch. Ahmed and Esma, in particular, question the power structure and the differences between their religions, Ahmed being a former Christian from Serbia captured as a slave and having adopted Islam, which is the same religion Esma follows. But what Ahmed and Esma seem to want most is freedom from the shackles of duty and the lives that they live. Ahmed is a soldier of the empire and has certain responsibilities, not only to Mahmoud, but to the Janissaries. Esma, as a princess of the Ottoman Empire, is bound by duty and her loyalty to her brother. In the end, it is a marvelous tale, and leaves you wondering about the costs that come with being in a position of power.
I received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.