The Drowning Guard: A Novel of the Ottoman Empire by Linda Lafferty

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Rating – 2.5 stars.

When everyone is determined to present someone as a monster, there are two possibilities: either he’s a saint or they themselves are not telling the whole story. –  Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

This book has left me with mixed feelings. I cannot hate the book but I don’t really love it either and I really don’t know what to make of that. 

The reason I requested an ARC of it was owing to the peculiar title, the synopsis and my love of historical fiction.

The reason for my reaction – the last quarter of the book. I simply cannot wrap my head around it. It just left me with such a huge sense of disappointment, because the build-up was quite good before Lafferty lost her way kinda.

The book opens in the city of Constantinople, in the year of 1826. And we are introduced to the Ottoman empire and come across princess Esma Sultan, renowned for her beauty, her harem, her palace and above all for her notoriety of having different Christian lovers every night and having them drowned after she has had her pleasure.

The repugnant and immoral work of drowning these men befalls on the hero – Ivan Postivich aka Ahmed Kadir, a renowned soldier who has been reduced to become the princess’ feared drowning guard. It is he, who takes these men to their doom by plunging them into the depths of the Bosphorous. 

Ivan a Serbian by birth was forcefully taken away from his  widowed mother along with his sister at the tender age of 7, after which he is made to convert to Islam, is circumcised and is made to take the name of Ahmed Kadir to serve the Sultan of the empire. He rises through his ranks and is placed among  Janissaries, the legendary guards of Constantinople. His enormous size, his horsemanship and his supremacy in the game of Cirit brings him to the notice of Sultan Mahmud II.  And while Ivan holds no particular love for anyone or anyplace in his life, he does respect and honor the code of Janissaries, the only family he has known for most of his life and is fond of horses especially mares and in particular his Peri.

He hates the princess with all his heart believing she is a vile woman who not only disgraces herself and Allah, but also brings upon shame on  her people. But most of all he hates her because she is the sole reason he is forced to commit murder of innocent men night after night.  Although he won’t admit to it, Ivan is deeply disturbed and haunted by his actions, however involuntary they may be on his part.

In what can be termed as only ironical, princess Esma Sultan seeks refuge from her own demons and nightmares by confessing her deepest darkest secrets to the one man who she has condemned to hell, by making him her confidante. She summons Ivan to her chambers night after night so that she may be relieved of the burden that is her past and the consequences of her actions.

Slowly but steadily you see a woman who is more than meets the eye. She is definitely no saint, but she is also not the monster people presume her as, as well. She who is the cause of the death of numerous men, has saved countless women too, by sheltering them in her harem and providing them with a refuge which is safer than even their own homes could be. These women, who were sold to her as slaves choose their own paths once Esma frees them on purchase, some choose to go back to their homes, their families, most stay. Some to not be back at the mercy of a torturing husband, others because they don’t have anyone else. 

As Ivan returns night after night to hear Esma recount her life, he learns though she leads the life of a princess, in the ottoman empire that does not really mean much. Yes she has been the favorite child of her father and is the dearest sister to the Sultan, but she is still very much like a prisoner owing only to her gender. Esma narrates to Ivan how she slowly realizes the meaning of what is it to be the daughter of a Sultan, to be a part of a harem and the horrors that she has had to witness owing to her lineage.

While this book in part did remind me of a number of characters and themes from the popular series A Song of Ice and Fire by  George R.R. Martin, a favorite of mine, I sadly cannot bring it upon myself to say it left me with the same level of satisfaction. Not even a fraction of it.  Granted Martin’ saga isn’t all sunshines and roses  and the man really leaves you horror stricken when he springs something like the Red Wedding or the execution of poor Ned Stark, you hate him and yet you love him for this brutality, this sick yet real approach towards his characters  that he has. The good guy doesn’t always win, heck he can have his head chopped off, while those who deserve it truly, are so lucky or should I say devious that not even a hair on their head is harmed. 

 While I do see a certain charm in Lafferty’ penmanship, her skills as an author are definitely a lot above the average fare however I cannot find it within me to like this book.Had Lafferty taken a similar approach here, then perhaps I would have been a satisfied reader. What bothered me was when the Janissaries revolt, all twenty thousand of them are killed, but Ivan by sheer luck is saved from the carnage.  

The ending felt rushed, contrived and conveniently wrapped up in a bow to me, had it been different I would have rated this book a bit higher.

I was provided an advance readers copy for reviewing courtesy of Amazon Publishing and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review of the book. This review is in no way influenced and is solely based on my opinion.

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