19 January 2012

Excerpt Thursday: Harem by Colin Falconer

This week on Excerpt Thursday, we're welcoming renowned historical fiction author Colin Falconer. His best-selling novel, HAREM, is set in the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who is left spellbound by his newest slave girl, Hurrem.  Join us Sunday, when Colin will be here to talk about this fascinating book and give away a copy. Here's the blurb:

He had everything a man might dream of; wealth, power and the choice of hundreds of the most beautiful women in his Empire. Why then did he forsake his harem for the love of just one woman, and marry her in defiance of the centuries-old code of the Osmanlis? 

This is the astonishing story of Suleiman, the one they called the Magnificent, and the woman he loved. 

Suleiman controlled an empire of thirty million people, encompassing twenty different languages. As a man, he was an enigma; he conquered all who stood against him with one of the world's first full time professional armies - yet he liked to write poetry; he ravaged half of Europe but he rebuilt Istanbul in marble; he had teams of torturers and assassins ready to unleash at a whim - yet history remembers him as a great lawmaker.

''Harem' literally means 'Forbidden': Forbidden to men. Once the Sultan was the only man - the only complete man - who could pass through its iron-studded doors. But what was that world really like?

For a woman living in the Harem the only way out was to somehow find her way into the Sultan's bed and bear him a son. But the young Sultan was often away at war and when he did return he neglected his harem for just one favourite wife. But one young Russian concubine inside his seraglio was not content to allow fate decide the course of her life. She was clever and she was ruthless. And she had a plan.

Into this world are drawn two unforgettable characters; a beautiful young Italian noblewoman, captured by corsairs and brought to the Harem as a concubine; and the eunuch who loved her once, long ago, in Venice.

Loved her? He never stopped loving her.

From medieval Venice to the slave markets of Algiers, from the mountains of Persia to the forbidden seraglio of the Ottoman's greatest sultan, this is a tale of passion and intrigue in a world where nothing is really as it seems. 

An Excerpt from HAREM

The courtyard was paved with almond-shaped cobblestones and dominated by an ornate marble fountain. Windows looked down from all sides. Hürrem felt as if the whole Harem was watching her.
This was the courtyard of the Sultan Valide! These were her apartments.
The guards hurried her to the centre of the court and there released her. 'The Kapi Aga says you are to wait. And be sure to sing.'
'Sing, why? What is happening?'
But the men had done as they had been ordered and they wheeled away without another word, the sickle-bladed yataghans at their waists rattling in their scabbards. Hürrem stared after them.
She waited there for an eternity but no one came. Water murmured in the marble fountain. Perhaps the Kapi Aga had arranged an interview with Hafise Sultan? she thought. But then why had they insisted she bring her needlework? What else was it they had said? 'The Kapi Aga says you are to wait. And be sure to sing.'
The Kapi Aga wanted her to break the sacred silence of the Harem?
She grew tired of waiting, found a cool spot in the shade of the fountain and sat down, crossing her legs beneath her, Osmanli style. She spread the handkerchief on her lap, took out her needle and went back to her embroidery. She chose to hum a love song her mother had taught her, about a boy whose horse had fallen in the snow, trapping him; as he died by inches on the winter steppe he told the wind how much he loved a certain girl and how he had never had the courage to tell her. He asked the wind to carry his words across the plain so that she would remember him. It was a stupid, sentimental song, Hürrem thought, but she had always liked the tune and after a while the words came back to her as well.
She soon forgot her initial anxiety and did not even notice the tall, slender figure in the white turban until his shadow fell across her lap.
'The first law of the Harem is silence.'
She looked up, startled. The man was standing with the sun behind his back and she had to shield her eyes against the glare. He did not speak like a eunuch and he was not black like a Nubian. There was only one other man who might walk freely here.
'Perhaps we should cut out the tongues of all the nightingales then. And the bees. We should do something about them also. All this incessant buzzing. Don't they know the rules?' There. It was out of her mouth before she could stop herself.
For a moment he just stared at her. Hürrem remembered that her first action before speaking should have been to lower her forehead to the ground and make her obeisance. She put down her embroidery and went to her knees. She touched her forehead to the hot stones, a futile gesture, it was already too late. She should beg his forgiveness for breaking the silence. Well, there was no point now, he had spoken and she had answered him.
She was suddenly aware that the old Kislar Aghasi - the Chief Black Eunuch - was standing behind Suleiman, his face beaded with perspiration, fanning himself with a silk handkerchief. He looked as if he were about to faint.
'Do you know who I am?' Suleiman asked her.
'You are the Lord of Life.'
'What were you singing?'
'It was a song I learned from my mother, my Lord. A love song. About a stupid boy who let his horse fall on top of him.'
'He was singing to the horse?'
She giggled, then stifled it. 'I think not. I dare to say the horse had lost much of its charm by then.'
She heard him laugh. 'What is your name?'
'They call me Hürrem, my lord.'
'Hürrem? Laughing one. Who gave you that name?'
'The men who brought me here. They could not pronounce my name. Though I suspect they were not intelligent enough to pronounce their own names either.'
He laughed again. 'Where are you from, Hürrem?'
She squinted up at him. This was the moment for which she had gambled so much and all she could think about was the pain in her knees. How long would he make her squat here on these cobblestones? 'I am a Tatar,' she said. 'A Krim.'
'Do all you Tatars have hair of such amazing colour?'
'No, my Lord. I was the only one in my clan so burdened.'
'Burdened? I think not. It is quite beautiful.' He stroked her hair and held a lock of it in his fingers, as if he were examining a piece of material in the bazaar for quality and strength. 'It is like burnished gold. Is it not, Ali?'
The Kislar Aghasi murmured his agreement. Liar! Hürrem thought. You have only spoken to me once, and on that occasion you called me an undernourished carrot.
'Stand up, Hürrem.'
At last! She did as she was told. She knew she should lower her eyes, as she had been trained to do, but curiosity got the better of her. So this was the Lord of Life, the Possessor of Men's Necks, the Lord of the Seven Worlds! He was handsome, she supposed, but not especially so. There was the shadow of a beard on his face, which lent a certain majesty to his beaked nose. He had grey eyes.
He examined her head to toe, as the spahis had done the day her father had traded her. He did not seem especially displeased with what he saw yet when he had done he gave a long sigh. 'What is that you are embroidering?' he asked her.
'A handkerchief, my lord.'
'Let me see it.' She handed it to him. 'A fine piece of work. You have great skill. May I have it?'
'I have not finished …'
'Have it ready for me tonight,' he said and placed it carefully over her left shoulder. The Kislar Aghasi's eyes widened in shock. Placing a handkerchief on a girl's shoulder signified that she was now gözde, and that the Sultan wished to sleep with her. No girl had been so favoured since he had assumed the throne.
Suleiman walked away without another word. The Kislar Aghasi looked as if he would burst; then he remembered himself and hurried after him.
Hürrem stood there, frozen to the spot, long after they were gone. Her body trembled with triumph and excitement.
Gözde!I am in the eye! Now I just have to stay there.