When I started reading The Ottoman Cycle I imagined, in my immense naivety, that the action will take place on the background of the new Istanbul, making the series an immense fresco of the city and the time. While this is certainly true for the first book, The Priest's Tale sees our hero, Skiouros, away from the capital of the empire, on an adventure that starts is Crete and ends... very far away from it. Saying the end is unexpected is an understatement, but I'll try not to give anything away as potential readers might want to discover where it ends for themselves. But the richest of the rewards in this book, like a lot of the times, lays a lot more with the journey than with the destination.
Skiouros goes half-circle around the Mediterranean, by sea and by land, and encounters trouble wherever, without particularly looking for it. The end of the previous book has introduced us to two characters, captain Parmenio and Nicolo, but gave no clue as to how important they will become in the story. Together with a rather mysterious Italian nobleman they will form Skiouros' posse, an adventurous gang of friends that makes the novel smell like bromance at times, another innovation to what was largely an individual story in the first book.
The Mediterranean world in the late 15th century is a very interesting place, a mixture of civilizations that clash, collide, live side by side and influence each other over a flurry of material for the interested historians and anthropologists. And we encounter all of these civilizations here: the Ottoman Turks who took over the ruins of Byzantium, the shrinking Arab world of North Africa, the Berber nomads roaming free across the ruins of the Phoenician empire, the Egypt of Mamluks and the warring Catholic states of Western Europe. And like all Simon's books, real history goes closely along the personal stories, making his books a history lesson delivered in the form of an action novel. Which is the ideal recipe for children books, really, the structure of most books I grew up with.
Religion being the important social element that it is in this era, is an unavoidable aspect as Skiouros' story too. And in this an author cannot but betray his own beliefs, siding automatically and unconsciously with whatever faith is closer to his convictions. There is no secret that Simon's values are mostly secular ones and as such , the more pervasive a certain faith will be, the less virtuous it will be deemed. To that end, the biggest villain in the book is the most fanatical believer: Etci Hassan, the Ottoman pirate, is by far the best villain in any of Simon's books I read so far and an all-round great villain by any measure. It does have an element of Jafar and it does echo of the Islamic fanaticism of which we see far too much today, but this Turkish pirate is a man of his age and it made me understand better how the interest of the Italian city-states at sea have collided with the Ottoman ones and led to the great naval battle of Lepanto.
Speaking of Hassan's vengeful quest, I did wonder at times if his resolve could not have been put to better use, if his chase of a Greek fugitive is not too insignificant a goal for a commander of the Ottoman fleet. And this is one point in which maybe the reader is required to suspend his belief here and there: is Skiouros' quest really worth it? Is his ultimate target really that guilty for the crime he is chased for to be deserving of that much hateful determination? And could his friends not divert him to better causes rather than getting whirled in this personal story of revenge?
And Skiouros does seem to be more and more of a conflicted character and this development does make for a better book, though the inflexibility of his ultimate goals bring some predictability that might not be necessary.
Two great pluses to compensate for this slight drawback: first, this is an action novel. The twists and turns, the fights and chases come thick and fast and I usually found it hard to put the book down as I would want to see which way an action scene is gonna go; only for it to be followed by another action scene and before you know it, the hours have flown by.
The second plus is a gallery of secondary characters, of which I would have liked to see more of: Don Diego de Teba, a Zorro avant-la-lettre, the fighting priest in Tunis, the gypsy traveler, Kemal Reis, the good Muslim and most of all, the Caravan lady, an absolutely delightful character that unfortunately disappears from the story way too quickly for my liking.
I will end my review with a quote that is becoming recurrent, as it appears at least twice in the third book of the cycle as well: "Vengeance is hollow victory, and as oft destroys its perpetrator as its target", Cesare Orsini tells Skiouros, and in the light of this wise words I am very curious to see if and how the young Greek's vengeance will be carried to an end. I am a book and a half away.