This is primarily the story of Celia Lamprey, a captain’s daughter who is shipwrecked on the eve of her wedding. She is eventually sold into the harem of Sultan Mehmet II in Constantinople, the same city where Paul Pindar, her former fiancé, is stationed as the representative of a merchant company.
Entwined with Celia’s story is the story of Elizabeth, a modern-day Englishwoman, who comes across a fragment of a manuscript telling Celia’s tale while she is researching her thesis. Elizabeth is in the middle of a bad break-up, and flees to Istanbul to look for more of the manuscript – and to finally make a break from her fickle lover, Marius.
Celia’s story is by far the meatier of the two. It is full of remarkable detail, luscious descriptions and the deadly politics of women in seclusion, scrambling for whatever power they can get their hands on. Her story has romance, violence and intrigue. It would work well as a novel all on its own.
Elizabeth’s story is not quite as interesting, but it moves along and it ties in nicely with Celia’s. Hickman has tried to add a bit of supernatural interest: her landlady in Istanbul is a mysterious figure, her new love interest is coincidentally named Mehmet, just like Celia’s sultan. Elizabeth seems not so much to research history as to intuit it. She has visions while visiting the old harem grounds. She hears voices during a run-in with Marius. I didn’t find these particularly interesting, but they aren’t a distraction. This is an excellent story in both the past and the present.
My copy of The Aviary Gate is an advanced reader edition, but it is now available and can be ordered here.