The Aviary Gate
by Katie Hickman
Bloomsbury, USA, 2010
Challenge #7: A book in a new-to-you genre
(Note: I am reading and blogging these Challenge books out of order)
For this challenge, I chose The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman, from my pile of TBRs. From the cover copy I assumed it was historical romance, which is a genre new to me, and so I expected to read a steamy bodice-ripper of some sort. I’m perfectly aware, mind you, that romance has progressed beyond the bodice-ripper, but all the same, I was expecting a 6-packed, studly hero, a feisty but pure heroine, and the hijinks that keep the couple apart, and the sexual tension that comes from that.
Well, yes and no. I found it was more of a historical intrigue, the tale of an English girl sold into the Sultan’s harem in 16th century Istanbul contrasted with the story of a modern-day Oxford Ph.D. getting over a bad romance with a teacher. The modern gal is researching the slave girl’s story, which acts as a framing device. The author is English and the writing was a lot different from the American style I’m used to. To begin with, it’s in third person omniscient, which is not used much, at least for romances, on this side of the Atlantic, though I’m used to it in the fantasy genre from writers like Neil Gaimon and Tanith Lee. I found it more scholarly yet less disciplined, and emotionally colder… which was oddly more visceral because it was less in your face than the American style. A few frothy elements of romance were there, mainly to do with longing, and I enjoyed them even though I’m not a fan of the genre. There was perhaps too much forced exposition through the characters’ dialogue, but that may be par for the course for this kind of book. I couldn’t help feel it needed a better edit, though.
The author did have a way with words, and her quirky use of language kept me well entertained. Certain parts of the story were pleasingly squicky, like the slave girl being prepared for the sultan’s bed, which entails a painful depilitation, perfume inserted in private places, and even sitting naked on a block of ice. These were finely balanced between erotica and horror. The descriptions of the black eunuchs were horrifying too. It was hard to discern what the author meant by all this. Perhaps it was historically true, yet overall the sex seemed too squicky and clinical for a romance, even the modern girl’s experience. The author has a background in travel writing and historical writing, so perhaps the clinical feel came from that.
The plot itself was slight in both eras. The slave girl realizes her betrothed is in Istanbul to deliver a gift to the Sultan and tries to contact him, but palace intrigue overwhelms her, and she loses her chance to escape; the modern girl leaves Oxford to England to research the slave’s story, and gets over her former lover, and finds a new one. It read less like an adventure and more of a panoramic travelogue through both eras. Like a story about a story, than a story itself. The characters felt twee at times, especially through their dialogue, and some were stereotyped, like the awesome, supportive Best Friend of the modern heroine, and the ne’er do well, cheeky sidekick of the 16th century hero and love interest. But overall, it was a pleasant read that worked in its way.
(For Turkish harem novels, however, Barbara Chase-Riboud‘s Valide was a lot better.)