Monday, March 25, 2013

Review: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Title: The Janissary Tree
Author: Jason Goodwin
Genre: Mystery / Historical Fiction
Publisher: Picador
Published: 2006
Pages: 336

Rating: 7 out of 10

The Janissary Tree is set in the dangerous, exotic world of 1800's Istanbul, Turkey. The country is doing its best to shift into a more Western way of doing things, met with mixed opinions. The Janissary warriors, who had protected the city for 400 years, were executed by their own people ten years ago, and are now suspected of re-surfacing, hunting for revenge.
Our detective, Inspector Yashim Togalu, a young eunuch, is asked to look into a couple of cadets in the new modern army who have disappeared and later turned up murdered. The Sultan himself also requests that Yashim investigate the murder of a girl in his harem.

This was a great mystery! Even though I seem to end up reading quite a few of them, I always harbor some skepticism over picking up mysteries, even historical ones. This one, however, I really enjoyed. And thankfully, this is only the first of Yashim's adventures.

In these pages, Istanbul becomes a living, breathing, exciting place that you feel you've sunken into. The author not only gives you the history and the culture of the city, but the feeling of it as well. There is an atmosphere, which changes slightly in different sections of the city, but ever-present is that spicy, colorful flavor that you would expect from an Arabic setting.
I love when authors are able to bring a different world to you, all contained in the pages of a book.

I liked the character of Yashim, even though he did not seem very different from other detective characters. He was a eunuch (that's different!), but the author has him sleep with a woman in the story. What is the point of him being a eunuch if he is going to also be running about having affairs? I felt a bit distant from Yashim in the story, but I'm hoping that we'll get to know him better in the other books of the series.
Also, it wasn't the characters that the author focused on, but rather on events and the mystery itself.

This mystery takes some thinking - and not in the 'figure-it-out' way, because you won't.
It is actually quite a complex story. I normally love complicated tales you have to read with your mind whirling, trying to keep up, but here, it didn't seem to fit quite right. I wanted some entertainment, too. The author adds in quite a few lighthearted little scenes and bits of dialogue, but the majority of the story is probably over-involved.
There are many, many, many characters. You are expected to remember the names of all of them - even minor people with long names who aren't really important to the story. Too many characters was definitely a flaw.

Also, expect to learn a lot in this historical mystery. Jason Goodwin has studied the Ottoman Empire extensively, and he wants you to know it. He also wants you to know as much about 19th Century Istanbul as he does, and he constantly throws information at you. To truly understand the full depth of this story, you must know the politics, the history, the customs, and the culture of this time period, and it's a lot.
I feel that if I had already known about the time period before I started this book, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
Then again, I do love learning things when I read historical fiction, and I certainly did in this one.

This is a great read, always exciting with short chapters and a steady stream of events and action. The setting was marvelous, and even though made overly complicated, the plot and the mystery made for a great adventure.
I will be looking for the next book in this series.