Thursday, September 7, 2023

Review: The Lion House: The Coming of a King by Christopher de Bellaigue

A study of Suleyman the Magnificent from oblique angles.

Suleyman the Magnificent is one of the most interesting and fascinatingly charismatic rulers in all of world history. If you know anything about the Ottoman Empire and it’s history, and can name a ruler, it’s probably Suleyman. The decadent opulent court, the brilliant mind, tactician and leader, the threat to Europe.

His story is told in The Lion House: The Coming of a King, by Christopher de Bellaigue

A straight up biography of him would be hard, and has been done before. What Christopher de Bellaigue does in this book, though, is a far more tricky sort of biography and study of the man. The author takes a road far less travelled in bringing us the world of the great Sultan. We meet Suleyman and get to know him throughout the book by looking at a selection of individuals across the region who have connections to him and his world.

So, the book does not open in Istanbul, as you might expect, or anywhere within the Ottoman Empire at all. Instead, the story starts in Venice, in April of 1522, with a briefing on the doings of the Ottomans, and in short order, the election of a Doge. We will continually go back to Venice in the course of the narrative, but the stories of individuals interacting with the Ottomans and Suleyman will range from Venice, to Hungary, to, of course, within Istanbul itself.

In this way, their stories, and their interactions with Suleyman, sometimes directly, and sometimes only obliquely, together, are meant for us to construct a narrative of the man at the center. Do we get fully in his head at any point? No. Do we get to see in full much of who Suleyman was, and what he did and his impact as a political actor? Again, no.

The book really turns out to be Suleyman as a “battlefield”, a chess piece (the King, naturally) on a chessboard between two of the primary point of view characters. Alvise Gritti is the son of the Doge of Venice elected in the first act, as previously mentioned. He is a bastard child, mistrusted for being a ‘Latin’, and yet for all of that, his ambition, charisma and skill puts him high in the councils of the Sultan. It’s a precarious perch to be sure, because the highest person in those councils, second only to the Sultan himself, is the Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. Ibrahim Pasha has an intimate, and very personal relationship with the Sultan, and recognizes the danger that Gritti represents to his own power and authority. And so, even though we get other points of view, their tangled machinations against each other fill much of this book.

What this means, and given the time frame, is that we get a necessarily narrow and focused look at the Sultan himself through this conflict, through these characters and their conflict. Within that and around that, though, we get a vivid and amazing wealth of detail on the court of the Sultan, the frontier in Hungary, the halls of power in Venice, and what life “on the road” was like for soldiers, for diplomats, for high officials, for soldiers. For Suleyman. It’s an immersive and detailed use of worldbuilding to bring us into the lives of these characters who intersect with the great Sultan, directly or otherwise.

I have been speaking in terms as if this were a historical novel rather than an actual piece of non fiction, and I do think that this book really does borrow a lot from the novel tradition. The tradition expansive and sometimes dry history book of the past that turned off as many or more readers than they drew in is not so much a thing in modern history and non fiction. The rage these days is for the microhistory, for the history of sometimes not even just a particular person, but a moment in time, a decision, a small aspect of the world that can be illuminated, described and brought to life. Capturing Suleyman the Magnificent at the beginning of his reign, when he rising to his power and the crest of his reign (and arguably the height of the entire Ottoman Empire) is definitely in that microhistorical frame.

Where In the Lion House differs is in its use of narrative, point of view, the tricks of historical and mimetic fiction1 to tell these stories, to tell a narrative and a perspective on a character whose head we do no really get into. The book here at Nerds of a Feather that you may be thinking of, and I certainly was, was two books: The Sun Chronicles by Kate Elliott. Those novels feature a strong main character (the genderflipped Alexander the Great in Space). And while we do get point of view from Sun, in the two chonky novels in the series to date, we get particularly little page count in their heads. Instead we rely on the Companions, particularly ones like the Wily Persephone. It is through the frame of all the characters in those two novels that we get a picture of Sun herself, and what she does and who she is. De Bellaigue does the same thing, here.

One could write a fantasy novel in this way, sticking obliquely from the main characters and sticking to unusual point of view and “Camera choice”. Ann Leckie does this in The Raven Tower, and I know that was a difficult book for some people on that basis. I thought, however, it was brilliant.

So is it good? Is it successful? I happened to consume this in audio, and so it took me a bit to realize and recognize how the format, how the tone and shape of this story was going to go. I went thinking this was going to be a more traditional history book, a more traditional (even modern traditional) book than what I got. But in audio, the novel narrative lines worked for me, I wasn’t quite listening to a historical novel, but it was in that ballpark, with the immersive detail and the swirling around the main characters who themselves orbit in various ways around the Sultan. It was a transporting experience and I highly recommend that if you are looking for an audiobook that educates as well as entertains, this is the book for you. It’s not the one true and single biography of the Sultan, but it will give you a sense of who he was by the lives he touched.



- Historical Novel like feel to the narrative
- Audio version may be superior to print given unusual format for a history book

Reference: de Bellaigue, Christopher, In the Lion House, [Vintage Publishing, 2023] 

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.