Written by Jason Goodwin — The year is 1842 and the location Istanbul, the city that until recently was the heart of the Ottoman Empire. But the Sultan has moved his retinue to the Bosphorus, leaving his mother, the valide, behind in Topkapi Palace. Yashim is her confidante and fixer. He has the necessary qualifications for the job – clever, loyal, and a eunuch. Put simply, no man with balls would ever be allowed into the harem.
Outside of the palace, Yashim’s closest friend is the ambassador-in-exile, Palewski. His country, Poland, no longer exists. It has been annexed by Russia and Prussia. He has dedicated his life to fighting for his country, and continues to agitate for its recognition now, though he knows how unlikely this is to happen.
The valide is stuck in her palace, and bored of the pettiness of her ladies-in-waiting. For some time she has been corresponding in secret with the daughter of a Russian exile. Natasha and her father were sent to Siberia because of his political beliefs and have endured a torrid time there. The Tsar has granted a reprieve to the others and Natasha wants the same. The valide has invited her to Topkapi before deciding whether to intercede on her behalf and wants Yashim to escort her around the city. However, Yashim is angry about being given a baby-sitting job that he feels is beneath him but is also concerned about the valide’s recklessness. This is extremely politically sensitive.
At the same time Palewski has also been making secret plans. He has made no secret of entertaining three Italian young men who have come to Istanbul to plot against the Pope in order to unite Italy. Palewski enjoys their youthful company as it reminds himself of his younger days but is skeptical about their revolutionary zeal. The men are wealthy, from noble stock, and appear to enjoy champagne too much. He feels they are just playing and calls them the Baklava Club in private.
Palewski has also persuaded a figure high up in the Ottoman government to meet an exiled Polish prince. Such a meeting to kick-start an uprising of pro-Polish sentiment, and with Europe changing all the time – this could be his best chance to see his country again. He plans to collect the prince from his ship in secret. But at the docks he is shot and the prince is kidnapped. Finally Yashim has a mystery he can get his teeth into, though it is not so welcome now that he is beginning to fall in love with Natasha.
The Baklava Club is a great read. This book has it all. The author is a noted historian and travel writer, and he brings Istanbul to life with his description of the city, the mix of people and faiths, with just a hint of tension between Christianity and Islam. Yashim is a gourmand and Goodwin’s depictions of the local produce and cuisine had me salivating. It is also a great thriller, with political intrigue and plotting to match anything from the 21st century. The ending manages to be both surprising and poignant. This is writing of the highest order.
The first novel in the series, The Janissary Tree, won the 2007 Edgar Award for best novel, and now this, the fifth, might just repeat that trick.
The Baklava Club comes out on 3 June for Kindle, 5 June as a hardcover and 10 June for iOS.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars