The Drowning Guard by Linda Lafferty
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Each morning in the hour before dawn, a silent boat launches on the Bosphorous, moving swiftly into the deepest part of the waters halfway between Europe and Asia, where a man will die…
The Drowning Guard is the tale of the Ottoman princess, Esma Sultan—one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history and unlike any other woman in the Islamic world. In a gender reversal of Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights, Esma seduces a different Christian lover each night, only to have him drowned in the morning. The Sultaness’s true passion burns only for the Christian-born soldier charged with carrying out the brutal nightly death sentence: her drowning guard, Ivan Postivich.
The Drowning Guard explores the riddle of Esma—who is at once a murderer and a champion and liberator of women—and the man who loves her in spite of her horrifying crimes. This textured historical novel, set in the opulence and squalor of Istanbul in 1826, is woven with the complexity and consequences of love.
“Not all is as simple as Good and Evil.”
That line speaks volumes about this story and the characters within it. This book is enthralling, profound, enraging, uplifting, beautiful, hideous, elevated, common…I could go on and on. Many of these words contradict each other but that’s kind of the point. You see, this story is full of contradictions, in the best way. These characters are so layered, so intricately woven and complicated that you find yourself forever questioning their motivations.
In the synopsis there’s one line that really grabbed my attention: “The Drowning Guard explores the riddle of Esma.” Yes. Exactly. Who is this woman that, through her actions, condemns a man to death each night? How can she justify her behavior, assuage her conscious? Or more importantly, does she even try to?
I’m at a loss for how to fully describe Esma Sultan. In the beginning of the book I hated her. She’s a spoiled, coddled princess whose male relatives have catered to her every whim. She throws priceless jewels during her tantrums yet will buy all the female slaves in the markets in order to save them from the harems of men, only to turn around and free them. She is a feminist. She hates all men. She loves her brother. She is selfish. She is selfless.
I CANNOT RECONCILE HER.
And the thing is, I’m not meant to. This character is neither fully good, nor fully evil. She is what she is.
Near the beginning of the story she falls ill. It isn’t a malady of the body that afflicts her but one of the mind because as much as she pretends indifference, she’s deeply affected by the fact that her actions have led to so many deaths. She begins to see specters even while waking and the breeze from the Bosphorus, the river she lives on and in which her lovers have been drowned, seems to carry the heavy stench of rotting corpses. The Greek doctor that treats her tells her she needs a priest but she, a Muslim princess, considers this blasphemy.
Enter Ivan Postivich, aka Ahmed Kadir. He’s her drowning guard and in a cruel twist of royal whim, the one man she sees fit to hear her confessions.
Ivan is a giant of a Serbian. He was taken from his house as a child and forced to convert to Islam and join the Janissaries, the legendary guards of Constantinople. Even though he’s enormous, he proves to be an incredible horseman and gains fame and notoriety for his early exploits in the game of Cirit. When he becomes the captain of a cavalry unit he goes from notorious to infamous, his bloodlust and courage in battle elevating him in the eyes of the Janissaries. He also becomes a target for the future Sultan, Mahmud II.
In a lot of ways his character and situation remind me of Maximus Decimus Meridius from Gladiator. Mahmud, seeing the threat in such a strong leader, strips him of his command for a ridiculous reason and relegates him to guarding his sister. Ivan obviously hates the woman who’s forced him to become nothing but a murderer of innocents and the honesty of that hatred is what first draws him to her, a woman surrounded by nothing but sycophants.
Don’t let my glowing description of Ivan’s military prowess fool you, he’s an asshole. He’s a misogynist. He hates all women. He loves his sister. He is selfish. He is selfless. He’s a Muslim. He’s a Christian.
I CANNOT RECONCILE HIM.
And again, I’m not meant to. Not only are these characters enigmas, but the city in which this book takes place, Constantinople, becomes just as enigmatic when painted in Lafferty’s beautiful prose. I’ve been sort of obsessed with it ever since I was a child and heard the strange, yet horrifically catchy Istanbul (Not Constantinople) by They Might Be Giants blaring forth from my brother’s boom box. I’ve read numerous books based in and around it but in my opinion, no one has done it justice like Lafferty. No one else has been able to capture the essence and the magic of a time there like she has. I felt like I was walking through the bazaars myself.
“Noisy vendors hawked their fiercely colored spices – green hennas and saffrons – their silver teapots, and lapis opium pipes. Red glass hookahs hung from rawhide tethers under the awnings. The tang of tobacco laced the air, mingling with the aroma of fish frying in olive oil and garlic.”
The city of Constantinople under Ottoman rule was a place that’s as difficult to understand as Ivan and Esma. While numerous religions were allowed to practice freely, women were sold like cattle at the markets, destined to be sex-slaves in the harems of sultans and pashas. The poor were kept well fed through numerous charitable foundations but when horses died in the streets they were left there because the citizens knew the packs of feral dogs that roamed the city would pick the corpse clean by day break. It was civilized. It was barbaric. It was tolerant. It was oppressive.
I CANNOT RECONCILE IT.
And that’s part of the reason my obsession has continued into adulthood.
Okay, so I’ve talked about the characters, about the city and now I suppose I should talk about the story. I can’t. I simply haven’t found a way to do it justice. It’s too complicated to put into words, too emotional of a journey for me to accurately describe it. I took over 2,000 words of notes while reading this and now I’m just sitting here staring at them, a day after finishing the book, wondering how the hell to summarize it all. It’s proved impossible.
I will say this; this book may not be for everyone. There are a lot of strong themes within it. Some of the characters commit heinous acts, unforgiveable acts that will turn your stomach and enrage you. Lafferty also throws you into the deep end with a lot of the terms and words common to the time and place and if you don’t have some sort of basic knowledge of the Muslim faith or the Ottoman Empire, you may find yourself confused. Don’t be alarmed, there’s a site to help you out. It’s called Google.
Basically if you’re a history nerd, a feminist, a fan of gorgeous prose, are interested in learning about the Ottoman Empire or just in reading a riveting story about two complicated and highly compelling characters, you should give this book a chance. You won’t regret it.