The Sultan of Byzantium by Selcuk Altun – review

By on November 21, 2013

sultan of byzantium

At its heart, The Sultan of Byzantium is a quest novel.  There’s a hero with a mysterious heritage,  a secret society, and journeys to far-flung locations in order to locate the keys to unlocking a treasure almost beyond belief. The novel doesn’t read like any run-of-the-mill pulpy thriller, however, even though it carries a few of those elements and shares more in common with Dan Brown books than Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider.

The story is told in first person, by a narrator who doesn’t reveal his given name (which he hates because of his relationship with his father) until well into the book and doesn’t reveal his true name until the very end.  References to his name are made frequently, though it’s usually as the narrator gauges how well a person speaks Turkish when they make an attempt to pronounce his name.  Hints are dropped, but for anyone unfamiliar with the Turkish language and culture, I’m not certain those clues would be enough to figure out his name.

One day, he is approached by three men who claim to act on behalf of an international conglomerate.  These men explain that he is to be declared the Emperor in Exile of Byzantium.  While the title makes the position sound as if he will be nothing more than a ceremonial figurehead, he is quickly reassured that once he passes the trial he will become the acting head of the conglomerate and have billions of dollars at his disposal.  He will be come a very wealthy and very powerful man.

The trial is, in essence, a gigantic scavenger hunt.  He must go to a series of sites significant for their Byzantine heritage and search for tiny squares of purple metal. Upon finding each of these squares, he is to place them into a box that contains tiny screens that reveal the clue to his next destination. Once he finds all of the tiles, he must then subject himself to an intensive quiz from the men to determine whether he’s worthy to become the Emperor in Exile.

These official trials aren’t the only challenges he faces.  In addition, he will encounter new friends, reluctant informants, love, and treason.  Most of these connections, regardless of being help or hindrance, are somehow tied into the wealth of knowledge he gains about Byzantium and its influences on modern culture as well as the web of intrigue he discovers.  He is dealing with the kind of people who aren’t just patient but capable of playing a long game that stretches over not just years or decades, but centuries.

The narrator isn’t an unpleasant man.  The voice the author and translators of the book give him is grave and very serious, but he’s not smug or self-congratulatory.  He may move through the world with confidence, and he’s without a doubt highly intelligent, but he does suffer from moments of self-doubt. His quest is fueled more by a thirst for knowledge and a desire to discover more about himself than it is by gaining access to all of the money. He is admirable for his drive and sometimes frustrating for his single-mindedness.

Because the entire story is told from his point of view, some of the other characters seem to be casual afterthoughts.  A mention is made here or there, along with a tidbit of description.  They’re in the story because they attracted his notice, usually for a reason.  The people we know best through his eyes are his mother, his father, and the men accompanying him through his trials. Everyone else is there because he needs small pushes of help from time to time to get through to the next stage of the hunt.

The author, Selcuk Altun, inserts himself into the story numerous times.  He’s like a bad penny, cropping up in the oddest places.  The first mention was odd, but made some sense, given the social circles the narrator was traveling in at that point.  After the third or fourth one, however, the references started to feel clunky and overdone.  I’m not sure if that’s because of the translation or if it’s because of the writer himself.  It gets a little bit jarring, though.

Otherwise, Altun writes beautifully.  The flow of the story feels more like rapid-fire poetry or an intricate fever dream than it does a genre novel.  Place is evoked not only to set mood but to anchor the characters to the place and time they inhabit and to their purpose.  Beauty is celebrated, but the darker, less attractive parts of the setting and of the narrator’s nature are pointed out, too.

The plot itself follows a logical path.  Situations are set up and tasks are carried out with a sense of strategy that gives the story urgency but ensures that the reader never thinks anyone’s decisions are being made upon impulse.  Instinct has its place, and that place is to be weighed and factored into a decision without being the sole basis of it. It’s a game of international chess with high stakes, and everyone involved knows what kind of game they’re expected to be playing.

History plays an enormous role in the book, as does an ancient conspiracy. What we accept as fact when it come to our past was written by the victors. Not every source is to be trusted.  Secrets are a huge factor in the story.  There are historical and personal secrets that will come to light and affect the outcome of the narrator’s quest and, ultimately, his life.

I enjoyed the book, but I have to admit that it took me a while to read it.  It wasn’t because I found the book truly difficult to read, but because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss any important details.  It’s not a quick read, nor is it one that should be read without a reader’s full attention on the page.  If you miss things, you’ll easily end up lost regarding where the narrator is and with whom he’s interacting. It was well worth reading and, certainly, well worth reading carefully.

I would recommend The Sultan of Byzantium for any adults who are looking for a satisfying intelligent novel that utilizes spycraft and intrigue without utterly devolving into a ridiculous amount of suspension of disbelief.  It’s not necessarily fast-paced, but it is well-plotted.  There’s some violence, but not an enormous amount.  Likewise, the narrator has a few interests that are less wholesome than his pursuit of historical knowledge.  Again, it’s definitely a book for adults, but it’s one that I think many will find enjoyable.

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