Bound together since birth, Calaf and Ishmael forge a friendship that lasts a lifetime. From the moment they’re born, they are used and manipulated by others. Their devotion to one another grows to fruition amidst a violent palace and a dangerous ruler’s quest for power. They’ll be separated by tragedy and circumstance, but their devotion to one another never wavers. In the end, their fates are dependent upon the whims of a capricious, cold-blooded woman and three seemingly impossible riddles. Neither may survive, but their love might just change the world around them.
Calaf and Ishmael is loosely based on Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. I’m not a fan of opera, to be honest. I’ve heard plenty and read many a libretto, but the story structure of operatic plotting tends to be excessively dramatic for my tastes. Still the historical aspect of Calaf and Ishmael intrigued me. Ultimately, there’s a lot of good in this book, but much like the opera upon which it’s based, Calaf and Ishmael falls prey to awkward pacing and to its own theatrics.
Calaf and Ishmael are relatively sympathetic characters. So much of what happens to them is outside of their control and they’re often battered about by the actions of others. They aren’t helpless, but they aren’t the masters of their own fate. They aren’t perfect men, either, and in that it was easier to find them relatable. They’re doing the best they can against incredible odds.
The secondary characters are just as important to the overall story, but aside from Timur and Sharina, their motivations aren’t always clear or become so convoluted their purpose is buried. This is especially frustrating during the second half of the book when the overall plot becomes equally complicated. What starts off as a fairly straightforward story of revenge ends up overly tangled as readers deal with spies, shifting alliances, betrayals, and war. I found it to be something of a mess and lacking in coherency. I did read the plot to the opera Turandot prior to starting the book, but that didn’t provide much guidance. Part of the issue is pacing, as events occur without a clear frame of reference. We’re given date ranges at the start of each section, but within the chapters themselves, things play out either too slowly or so quickly they lack development.
There is a strong historical aspect to Calaf and Ishmael, which works well when it’s allowed to, though it often becomes lost in the same plot issues as the characters. There’s just too much happening on the page, primarily during the second half of the novel, and I didn’t feel as if it was presented in a format that offered enough clarity or character development.
Calaf and Ishmael isn’t a bad book by any means and the main protagonists are well developed and engaging. The plot does struggle and the pacing becomes bogged down by weaker secondary characters, conflicting motivations, and a wider story that is overly complicated. Despite this, the love story is timeless and I think anyone who enjoys historical fiction will find a lot to enjoy.