Thursday, April 9, 2015

New Review: Bertrice Small’s THE KADIN – A Classic Saga; Love with a Turkish Sultan

First published in 1978, this was Small’s first novel and by her own words, she spent 5 years researching it. I love that her stories reflect deep historical research. It shows in the many details and the vivid descriptions. This is a saga covering more than fifty years. It’s divided into 5 parts, named for the heroine’s roles: the Ambassador’s Daughter, Cyra, The Kadin, Hafise and Janet. And the beginning and end, which take place in Scotland, provide perspective on her life.

This is the story of Lady Janet Leslie, the only daughter of a Scottish earl, Lord Glenkirk, King James’ ambassador to the tiny Mediterranean country of San Lorenzo. At 14, she is happily betrothed to the San Lorenzo’s heir, but then she is betrayed by a servant, abducted and sold on the auction block in Crete. The highest bidder was Hadji Bey, chief eunuch for the Sultan of Turkey. Even Janet’s father could not find the gold to outbid him.

Taken to the Sultan’s harem, Janet’s name is changed to Cyra (meaning “flame” for her vivid red gold hair) and there she is taught all she needs to serve the Sultan (which conjured images of Esther and Daniel from the Old Testament). She also makes two friends bought by Hadji Bey around the same time, one from China and one from the Caucus mountains. These two women become her closest friends. When the 25th birthday of the Sultan’s youngest son, Salim, arrives, he is given the choice of six women from the Sultan’s harem to form his own. Unbeknownst to the Sultan, Hadji Bey has been hiding the three virgins he wants Salim to choose. Salim chooses Janet (Cyra) and her two companions, to be among the six, as he was encouraged to do by Hadji Bey.

A wonderful cast of secondary characters surrounds Cyra as she takes up her role as Salim’s favorite. And Small’s research is evident in the many details of harem life and the eastern culture that pervades the story. That Cyra, a strong-willed, high-spirited young teenager could easily accept her fate was a bit hard to swallow. But as the story continues, it is consistent with her character and her decisions to pursue the path of diplomacy and wisdom.
Many things happen in this saga. There is intrigue, treachery (including murder) and jealousy among the women—exactly what happened historically. Cyra takes her place among the Kadins (the women of the harem who give Salim children) and becomes the bas Kadin, the mother of Salim’s heir, Suleiman (a real historic figure and the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire). Cyra’s wisdom and leadership rise to the fore and she is respected and loved by all but her rivals.

Great storytelling, wonderful characters and real history deftly woven make this a well-loved classic. However, the end is bittersweet, which will disappoint some romance readers who prefer to be left happy. And, with the events in the Middle East today, romances that feature a Muslim sultan acquiring an European Christian woman to add her to his harem, have lost much of their former appeal. It would not be the fantasy of many women today.

The sequel, the story of Catronia, a descendant of Janet, is Love Wild and Fair.

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