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. Some interesting recent examples include the TV adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle (Axis powers win WWII), Ben Winters’ 2016 novel Underground Airlines (slavery was never abolished in the US), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt (the black death decimates Europe leading to the rise of Chinese and Muslim empires). And they have been around for a long time, the first being recorded in the fourth century BC. But alternate histories really came into their own in the Twentieth Century, so much so that the subgenre itself has subgenres. Some just posit a different world while in some, the timeline is changed deliberately to try and achieve a particular outcome. Raymond Khoury’s The Ottoman Secret falls into the second camp – alternate history created by way of time travel. The premise is that someone goes back in time to ensure that the Ottoman Empire wins a crucial European battle in 1683, goes on to conquer the rest Europe and, due to his knowledge, 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 in an insurrection 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 makes this all work mainly because it makes little to no sense. And of course, ever since Terminator, time travellers always emerge naked (hence the tattoos). The Ottoman Secret is about using Khoury’s magical time travel mechanism 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 world events. And 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 premise but does leave readers with something to think about after the dust has settled.
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