Katie Hickman's "The Aviary Gate" is a story within a story. In present day Oxford Elizabeth Staveley, a graduate student, is looking through the Bodleian Library archives in search of material for her thesis on captivity narratives. She finds a fragment of a manuscript which describes a shipwreck and the unfortunate aftermath when the ship is boarded by Turkish pirates. The captain of the ship is murdered and several of the women are taken captive by the pirates, among them the captain's daughter, Celia.
Elizabeth immediately feels a connection with Celia and wants to find out more of her story. At the same time her personal life is experiencing upheaval. The man she is in love with is a wandering womanizer and as much as Elizabeth would like to break away, she is having trouble severing her ties to him. On an impulse, she abruptly leaves her life in Oxford and flies to Istanbul, not knowing what she is looking for but anxious to do SOMETHING. She seizes on following Celia's trail as a way to force change in her own life.
Woven in to Elizabeth's story are segments of Celia's life in 1599 Constantinople. She is bought for the Sultan's harem, intended to be his next "favorite" concubine. The reader sees the secretive world of the Ottoman harem. The female population is full of political maneuvering and infighting and Celia struggles to learn the hierarchy and her place in it. They even have a silent language they use amongst themselves when speaking is prohibited. For Celia it is a prison full of confusing rules, conflicting gossip, drama and backstabbing. When she discovers that her fiancee is in Constantinople on an errand for Queen Elizabeth I, she dreams of a chance to see him again.
The author paints a lush and beautiful picture of the secluded world of the harem and the women who inhabit it. Present day Istanbul is also described well. She presents an interesting peep into how that world might have been. I love books that transport you to a place which you can never visit, and make it seem like you have been there. I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading other titles by this author.
The Aviary Gate was released by Bloomsbury on May 27, 2008.