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BOOK REVIEW:

The Sultan of Byzantium

Halâs is a professor, book collector, poetry lover, inquisitive reader of history, with a well-ordered but lackluster life.  All of this changes when he is approached by several men from the mysterious Nomo organization who offer him a challenge that will verify if he is the heir apparent to the ancient Byzantine Empire. Initially dismissive, his interest grows as he seeks to unravel the answers to a set of questions. Each individual answer has a clue that leads to the next question, with the story taking on a whirlwind pace and tour through districts in Istanbul, cities and regions in Turkey, and cities in Europe, the United States, and South America.

Altun has created an homage to the Byzantine Empire with a plot as intricate as the former realm.  Throughout the novel, the answers to the questions are linked to parts of the ancient history of modern Istanbul, which in today's world frequently are overlooked and/or ignored:  the Doge of Venice, the Crusaders, and the ancient Greeks and Romans. Sometimes the reader and the protagonist are thrown off track with a few red herrings. And for good measure, the author Selçuk Altun makes several appearances in the novel as an acquaintance of Halâs. Sardonic cheekiness, the love of history and especially of poetry are interlaced with quotations from poems, aphorisms, many of which are clues leading to the answer why Halâs was chosen. Along the way, he uncovers the missing pieces to the history of his American father and Turkish mother, and gets involved in an unexpected romance, which are all part of the solutions to the puzzling questions.

The novel is set within a vivid portrayal of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, once center of the western and eastern worlds. It is the only city to straddle two continents, Europe and Asia, not only geographically, but in other ways through politics, religion, culture, history and the arts.  The ironical title alludes to this very rich split:  the Ottomans were ruled by sultans who overran the Byzantines who were ruled by emperors.


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