Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Snake Stone

This is the second novel in Jason Goodwin's series about the Ottoman investigator Yashim, which I am reading before reviewing the most recent one, to be published in March.

There is little new in this novel beyond the themes and characters Goodwin introduced in The Janissary Tree. In fact, this book is almost a carbon copy of the previous one. Yashim visits the court -- the sultan is now ill, so the focus is on the valide, the sultan's mother. He eats and pals around with his friend, the Polish ambassador Palewsky, who once again save's Yashim's life by rescuing him from an otherwise fatal predicament. Yashim does some cooking and shopping, experiences once again a eunuch's frustrating yearning for a damsel in distress. The novel turns on one of Istanbul's historic sights -- the Janissary tree in the first book, and the serpent column in this one. And the climactic chase takes place in one of the city's distinctive architectural features.

The author's intimate familiarity with the culture and history of this fabulous city and his skillful prose bringing it alive are still what carry this series, though it is starting to wear thin and I wonder what he will do to pick things up in the subsequent novels. I know that the third book takes place at least in part in Venice, so we'll see what that brings.

Aside from the lack of novelty in this second installment -- other regular characters such as his transvestite entertainer friend and a fruit stall owner dutifully make their appearances here -- what is missing the most is more characterization of Yashim. In fact, after intimating some depths of character in the first book, Goodwin actually seems to pull back from going to deeply into his character. The reader's empathy for this unusual investigator becomes, I think, more attentuated, rather than less so, in this novel.

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