Jahan arrives in Istanbul a child. Blackmailed into pretending to be the caretaker of Chota, a young white elephant meant as a gift for the Sultan so he can steal for a corrupt seaman, Jahan thrives in the palace. He befriends other trainers, learns his trade, meets the princess, and, eventually, comes under the watch of Sinan, one of the greatest architects in human history (seriously, look him up). Eventually, he is recruited as Sinan’s fourth apprentice, and much of the book details the maturation and inevitable decline of the many relationships set up in the book’s earliest pages. Jahan lives, loves, and builds in 16th century Istanbul, and Shafak’s portrait of the time and place is comprehensive and lovingly crafted.
Elif Shafak’s book has something for everyone, and it is impressive how natural all the disparate threads seem to come together. There’s a story of forbidden love, as Jahan befriends and falls for Mihrimah, daughter of the Sultan, in a relationship that can never be. There’s the history of a great city and great empire as Jahan’s life sees many of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks rise even as the city’s fortunes fall. There’s the story of the haves and the have nots, and the way each treats the other. But the book never feels cluttered or over-plotted, and the characters never feel like pieces being moved around to their historically-appointed destinies, as can sometimes befall historical fiction. The city built here is the city that stands, but Shafak’s work is populated by characters, not wax figures – often elusive, occasionally overreaching, but alive nevertheless.
My only real issue with The Architect’s Apprentice is in how Shafak deals with the passing of time; or, more realistically, how she refuses to do so. Though the book spans decades, nearly a century all told, Shafak gives little indication of it beyond brief notices of world events that happen suddenly and pass just as routinely. Which is fine in itself, as that’s so often how the world works, but oddly, Shafak doesn’t really have her characters age at all. They get physically older, but they never act older, they never emotionally age. This makes late-game deaths and seasoned relationships feel as though they’ve come out of nowhere. This decision gives the characters the… iconism, maybe, of characters in a fable or a folk tale, which is reinforced by Shafak’s relatively simplistic (but incredibly engaging) prose, but it still grates at times.
It’s a problem, but not a ruinous one. Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect and Jahan’s master, makes a point to leave a visible flaw in every building he makes – an upended tile, something small – as a reminder that only God is perfect, and it is arrogant for man to try. The flaws in his buildings are, ultimately, a part of the unique character of each landmark; each flawed building, in turn, is part of what makes Istanbul such a vibrant city. Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice isn’t perfect, but it is nevertheless a magnificently realized work of historical fiction, one that paints an intricate picture of a great artist’s life work and the apprentice who understood the blood, sweat, and tears that went into every building. Ultimately, despite the political machinations, empire-building, wars, and forbidden love, The Architect’s Apprentice is a simple story about creation. About the creation of relationships, the creation of a city, and, perhaps most of all, the creation of truly great art. Well-told, simply written, and beautifully evocative, Shafak has built us a marvel, flaw and all.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian for updates on where you can find his writing on books, comics, film, and more!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Group. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.