The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman

Salaams for a rose-tinted romp
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The Independent Culture

Dear reader, lie back on your ottoman and relax. Katie Hickman will take you to a magical land, the Topkapi harem in Istanbul in 1599. Here Celia Lamprey, a captured English lass with golden hair who has been snatched from her father's ship, languishes among the odalisques.

She doesn't get a chance to languish for long. Celia's fiancé, a wealthy merchant, arrives as an emissary charged with delivering an intricate musical clock as a token of Queen Elizabeth's regard for the Sultan. Naturally, Pindar discovers his inamorata is locked away in her golden cage. Naturally, hints reach Celia that her beloved is in the inaccessible court outside, and she frantically tries to plot her escape. But Celia is in a world where she has to distinguish friend from foe – and the penalty of failure is ending up in a bag in the Bosphorus.

Let's not worry our pretty heads about social history here. Never mind about the politics of reproduction or the purposes of the Ottoman sultans in creating a dynasty disconnected from the indigenous aristocracy, though these considerations might have enlightened Hickman as to why all occupants of the harems were drawn from far-flung lands. Especially, never mind about Edward Said's famous identification of "Orientalism" as a Western concept and its logical corollary: that the erotic harem is a creation of Western culture. Hickman goes unashamedly for all the traditional features of this Occidental vision: the big black eunuch, the strangled handmaids, poison in every dish.

Everything is rose-tinted: jam, dawn over the Bosphorus, bits of genitalia. There are luscious descriptions of costumes, of silk robes and mother-of-pearl twinsets, of ropes of jewels plus an emerald aigrette that comes in uncommonly handy.

The delicacies served are correspondingly exquisite and include a ship made out of sugar by the sweet maker who accompanies Pindar. As for the inhabitants, we have the Oriental as homo astronomicus, a brilliant Arab scholar Pindar consults, and also the mandatory scheming Sultana Validé, plus the masseuse skilled in erotic arts without whom no harem novel would be complete.

The intricate courts, alleys and secret staircases of the Topkapi are enticingly described and contribute to a plot full of headlong twists and turns. The harem story is intercut with a rather sketchy modern framing narrative about an Oxford researcher who discovers a mysterious letter. She is impelled to Istanbul to investigate, which entails some realistic modern description, though romance inevitably beckons in the shape of a gorgeous Turk.

The death last year of Lesley Blanch, who specialised in writing about women with exotic tastes in distant lands, left a sad gap in this particular genre. Hickman has leapt into the breach with panache with this box of Turkish delight. Enjoy!

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