Earlier this month, I finished my third book towards the 10 Books of Summer challenge: Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver. I have enjoyed many documentaries presented by historian Neil Oliver, and so I was very interested to read his first foray into historical fiction.
Master of Shadows sweeps us back to Constantinople, the jewel of the Byzantine Empire, in the 15th century. However now the city is a shadow of its former glory and sits on the very edge of the Christian world – where cut off from the Roman Catholic church it faces the might of the newer, more powerful Ottoman Empire alone. Within the walls we meet Prince Constantine, the crippled heir to the throne, and Yaminah, a young woman who Constantine saved as a child, but their future is in grave doubt. As the ambitious and ruthless Sultan Mehmed II assembles the largest Ottoman army ever amassed outside the crumbling walls of their city.
Sadly from history we know all does not go well for Constantinople and it finally falls to the Turks in 1453; who rename the city, Istanbul. During this turbulent time in history the city of Constantinople acts like a magnet – in this story we meet two characters who find themselves inexplicably pulled towards the city to help in it’s final, dark days. First, we have John Grant a young man with a sixth sense forced to flee his homeland of Scotland. Secondly, we have Lena a very mysterious, middle-aged woman with fighting skills equal to, if not better than, most men. These two characters will also discover they have a connection to each other and to Constantine and Yaminah.
The narration of this story flips between John, Constantine, Yaminah, Lena and John’s surrogate father Badr, plus there is some narration in the past from John’s mother and father and Yaminah’s mother. That is a lot of threads to follow, so you need your thinking cap on. All threads were interesting however this story really gripped me once the characters and their threads came together in the doomed city; then I could hardly put the book down. The initial appeal of this book for me was the setting of Constantinople – I think Oliver brought the once mighty city to life beautifully and I could feel the palpable fear rising from its inhabitants.
I think this is a super impressive debut novel from Neil Oliver and you can tell that his background as a historian has really helped him. This book is detailed and very realistic – in particular, I think he blended real historical events and characters perfectly with the fictional. There was the historical characters of Constantine, Mehmed, another who I can’t name because it would be a major spoiler and even John Grant is based on the historical rumour that a Scotsman was among the city’s defenders. However along with that realism comes some graphic sexual and violent detail which made this a very good but not a great read for me – this is just my personal taste though and is no reflection on the quality of writing or story.
Master of Shadows is a realistic historical adventure that swept me back to the bloody downfall of Constantinople. I would definitely be interested in reading more by Neil Oliver. Good read.
Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
Have you read this? Or any of Neil Oliver’s non-fiction books?
10 Books of Summer – 3/10