The Architect’s Apprentice: A Review

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

After a short internal debate with myself, I decided to buy an approximately $14 e-book – the much awaited “The Architect’s Apprentice”. Normally, I would wait till the price went down by a little bit, but with this Elif Shafak March 2015 release, I knewI wouldn’t be able to wait. So I debated with myself only for a short amount of time, mostly because of the ritual of doing so and not because I needed convincing, and with the click of a button had Shafak’s book sent to my Kindle.

Two days later, I definitively knew that this was one of the best $14 buys ever. “The Architect’s Apprentice” is a magical novel that follows the story of Jahan, a mahout or elephant tamer in the Sultan’s palace, who soon becomes one of revered architect Sinan’s apprentices. Historically, Sinan was the Chief Architect serving under Sultan Süleyman (the Magnificent), Selim II, and Murad III. Sinan was the mastermind behind the famous Süleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, and Shafak details its construction process with mystique and wonder, appealing to any sort of reader, well acquainted with architectural terminology or not. While Jahan, the 12 year old elephant tamer is fictional, a vast majority of Shafak’s story is not, the proof of which can be seen in the beauty of the Ottoman mosques that dot the Istanbul skyline. She successfully combines the real and the somewhat twisted histories of Istanbul into one fascinating, fast-paced and dramatic read.

While other characters develop on the periphery, the novel is a bildungsroman for Jahan, who starts off as an impressionable, naïve and insecure young lad. His closest friend is his elephant Chota, though soon, in clichéd fairytale fashion, he develops romantic feelings for the Turkish princess Mirihmah. Shafak manages to incorporate love, death, unlikely friendships and ultimate betrayal without being overly pretentious, in a manner that is intriguing but not outlandish. All the while, the dynamism in both beauty and harsh inequalities of the Ottoman capital is constantly adhered to, showing how easy it is to have an obsessive, intense love-hate relationship with Istanbul.

The Süleymaniye Mosque, completed in 1558

The Süleymaniye Mosque, completed in 1558

On a more personal note, Shafak’s story reminded me of my wonderful “Tryst with Turkey”, back in 2012, when spent a semester in Istanbul. I loved the expressions of similarities between Turkish and Indian culture and traditions that I too noticed during my stint in Turkey. This book is special as the premise of Jahan’s placement in the Sultan’s court is that he is an elephant tamer from India (even though we later learn this is a lie). He pretends to be Indian until he is much older, when with a twist of fate, he boards a ship to truly travel to Agra, eventually helping to build the Taj Mahal. Shafak clearly did her research, and I (being Indian and having experienced Istanbul firsthand) was immensely pleased with the result of this Indian-Turkish combination.

As you know, my purchase was just based off the fact that I love Shafak’s work and I hadn’t read any reviews of the book prior to reading. So, as I dove in to the book, I remember feeling a bubble of excitement to see that the opening was in the form of a letter by Jahan, with his signature including the words “Agra, India”. I thought “India and Istanbul, this will surely be a somewhat nostalgic read.” And I was right. As I read the Architect’s Apprentice I could see images of Istanbul, its mosques and minarets, its bazaars and hawkers, its food and desserts, swimming before my eyes. Much like “The Forty Rules of Love” (the first Elif Shafak novel I read), this book ignited my wanderlust that is often suppressed because of the realities of work life, and reaffirmed my desire to once again visit Turkey. Even for those with no knowledge of Istanbul, this book is sure to give you a glimpse into wonder and mystique of the Ottoman Empire. Shafak’s words jump off the page to create imagery that is both intricate and majestic, and expansive in its coverage of historical events and figures. I know I am quite biased, but if you are looking for a book that will inspire and enchant you, then get started on The Architect’s Apprentice – you won’t regret it!