The Ottoman Secret

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 20 Mar 2020

Member Reviews

Everyone seems to love an alternate history. A scenario that takes a moment and time and asks the question what if it turned out another way. And they have been around for a long time, the first being recorded in the fourth century BC. But they really came into their own in the Twentieth Century and there are so many examples of this subgenre of speculative fiction that the subgenre itself can be divided up. Raymond Khoury’s The Ottoman Secret falls into the camp of alternate history created by way of time travel. The premise being that someone goes back in time to ensure that the Ottoman Empire wins a crucial battle in 1683 and goes on to conquer Europe and last hundreds of years.
When the book opens it is the equivalent of 2017 in our time. Paris, like the rest of Europe is ruled by the Ottomans, with an iron fist. Kamal is a member of the secret police, charged with rooting out enemies of the state. But his sister-in-law Niseem is somehow involved and he walks a tightrope of loyalty to the state and an unrequited love for her. At the same time Niseem’s husband, an anaesthetist is treating a tattooed stranger who came into the hospital needing heart surgery. He learns that the stranger is a time traveller, who had gone back in time to ensure the ongoing success of the Ottoman Empire. On learning this secret all hell breaks loose for all three. More time travel at that point is inevitable.
Talking about the plot too much would give away too many of the twists and turns of what is essentially, in the end a fairly linear thriller narrative. The trick is not to think too deeply about the mechanics of the time travel that make this all work because it makes little to no sense. And of course, ever since Terminator, time travellers always emerge naked (hence the tattoos). But Khoury is really interested in the logical (if such a thing exists) mechanics of time travel. The Ottoman Secret is about using that mechanic to play with history and make his characters improvise as they deal with the constraints of different historical periods.
The problem that Khoury has is the probable lack of familiarity of his readers with the history of the Ottoman Empire. This is essential knowledge if readers are going to appreciate how he has played with word events. However, this necessarily leads to huge slabs of information needing to be worked into the narrative. But once that is out of the way, The Ottoman Secrets settles into being a pacey, if somewhat unbelievable (even in its own context) thriller.
The Ottoman Secret is what is generally referred to as a beach read. It is silly and not worth spending too much time thinking about but Khoury has an easy style to the point that when the exposition stops, the pages practically turn themselves. And Khoury does, eventually, have a serious point to make about the modern world and the philosophies that it is based on. Which does not necessarily justify the time spent with the book but does give readers something to think about after the dust has settled.
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I am always intrigued by the what ifs of history, and how one small change could dramatically change the world we live in today, so The Ottoman Secret by Raymond Khoury seemed right up my alley. This book takes place in a version of the world where the Ottoman Empire still exists and holds significant territory and America has closed it's borders to become a white only, fundamentalist Christian country. After several years of peace and prosperity, the death of the former Ottoman leader and the ascendancy of his more fundamentalist  son combined with a shrinking economy as global dependence on fossil fuels is reduced  is leading to a more unstable political climate. When a mysterious tattooed man turns up at a hospital and no record of his identity can be found, one of the doctors suspects something sinister is afoot, little realizing that his investigations will lead to a secret buried deep in the past , one so important that it brings him to the attention of the Sultan himself, and not in a good way.  Meanwhile two up and coming officers in the state police force are working on a murder, a body found stripped and abandoned in a canal. The two cases are of course connected, and soon the attention of the police is focused a little too close to home for Kamal, one of the officers. It seems that uncovering the truth, despite how unlikely it may seem, could be the only thing to save his family.  
Obviously when reading this book you have to suspend your disbelief to a certain degree, especially since it involves time travel powered by some sort of mystical incantation, but if you are willing to do that you get the pay off in the form of an interesting and well imagined alternative version of our world. I will say the book is definitely a slow starter, there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid, both in terms of historical exposition and in the introduction of the characters and the explanation of the links that bind them. Once you get through all that the action and the pace really does pick up, and once it did I was completely hooked. Kamal is the most interesting and well rounded character, and I do wish that some of the other characters were given a bit more depth but that is really a minor criticism in what is by and large an enjoyable and entertaining book. 
I read an reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.
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I was really looking forward to reading this book as alternate history is normally a great way to make folk look at how we could be living if history had taken a somewhat different path. Sorry to say that this book did not manage to grab my attention in the way that I anticipated; it dragged. The further I read the more it did so until I stopped and moved on to the next book on my list. My 3 star rating really denotes a neutral rating as I was unable to reach the end.
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Raymond Khoury writes an alternative version, with fantastical elements, of European history and the Ottoman Empire, pieced together with actual events, one in which present day Muslim France and Paris is ruled under the tight grip of an Ottoman sultan. Whilst there has been progressive historical aspects to this empire, currently it is experiencing turbulent times, with the white Christian USA successfully having developing alternative power sources that do not involve oil, the revenues of which the Ottoman empire had relied on. The present sultan is an autocrat, with a vast network of secret police, intensive cyber surveillance, and tolerates no opposition or perceived dangerous ideas of freedom. The empire rests its legitimacy on the idea that it has been God's will that gave rise to their rule in Europe and the Middle East, but is that true? In 1682, at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Sultan has a strange visitor, a visitor that is to change the course of European history.

In present day Paris, Kamal Arslan Agha and his partner, Taymoor, are special investigators for the state police, and the pair have recently foiled a terrorist plot, and being lauded. On the banks of a River Seine, the arrival of a naked stranger leads to murder. At the hospital, a heavily tattooed man is receiving urgent medical treatment, treated by Dr Sayyid Ramazan Hekim, Kamal's brother. Kamal is estranged from his brother and his wife, Nisreen, and their two children. Nisreen is a gifted lawyer, a thorn in the side of the regime, an intolerant and brutal regime that she feels Kamal is blindly upholding with his role in the state police. Ramazan and Nisreen hear a shocking story of an Ottoman secret from his patient that is to endanger their entire family, including Kamal. Kamal finally has a real glimpse of what it to be like to be considered an enemy of the state as the Sultan unleashes all his powerful forces to ensure that the Ottoman secret is known by none, as Kamal and his family are ferociously hunted down.

Khoury writes a fast paced and tense thriller, although it did take a little while before I became fully invested in this imaginative story and its world building of an alternative history of Europe, with reworked elements of actual history, such as the growth of ISIS, and the richly detailed blood soaked battle scenes of the 17th century siege of Vienna. This novel provides an interesting and fascinating premise, a premise that explores the deadly political horrors of real European history that includes its tragic world wars, and the inability of humanity to provide stability, peace and freedom, and how these are recurring problems that continue to the present day. A powerful and entertaining read, thought provoking and thoroughly engrossing. Many thanks to Penguin Michael Joseph for an ARC.
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I'm really struggling with this one so I'm going to leave it. I loved the idea of alternate history and seeing what Paris looks like after 300 years of Ottoman rule, but the language is just so cliche and simplistic, it's hard to feel engaged. 

Really appreciate you allowing me to try it in any case.
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Seemed a bit slow burning to begin but then this dystopian tale burst into flames and suddenly, I was swept away with the intensity of the fire. The pace and the heightened emotions just kept gaining in speed and depth. Our heroes had an impossible job to set the world to rights and defeat loomed large at every turning. There is every conceivable emotion in this book and it’s a real sleep stealer.
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Interesting and original and I learned much about the history of the Ottoman Empire as this exciting book feared between yesterday and today.

A rapidly paced and well researched thriller written by a top writer who truly knows his subject.

Ideal beach fodder.
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