The Architect’s Apprentice tells the story of Jahan, an Indian boy who arrives in Istanbul in the 16th century. He comes with a gift for the Sultan – a rare white elephant named Chota, and manages to pass himself off as the elephant’s handler, and so obtains a place in the palace. Attracting the attention of Sinan, the Chief Royal Architect, he eventually becomes one of four apprentices to the architect, and so embarks upon a completely unexpected path.
Shafak’s prose is beautiful throughout, and she manages to create a strong sense of place through her descriptions and the use of the occasional Turkish word (with translation). The Istanbul presented here is a time of superstition, and there are various references to Sheitan (the devil) and what must be done to ward against him. The novel doesn’t become fantastical at any point, however – these details are mentioned in passing, and again add to the sense of what Istanbul, and indeed the wider world, was like at the time.
The Architect’s Apprentice is an easy read with a charming protagonist, and Jahan’s adventures are entertaining. I found that my attention wavered at a couple of points, however. Spanning some 450-odd pages, there is a lot of detail in this novel, and I found that it was perhaps a little too much at times. I think that Shafak has done a lot of research to make this historically accurate, but maybe tried to add a little too much of this into the story.
I also struggled with the timing of events, in that it wasn’t always obvious whether one chapter followed on directly from the previous one, or if some time had passed between them. This isn’t a big issue, but I found myself wondering how old Jahan was at certain points in the story, and being unable to work it out, and this bothered me.
The Architect’s Apprentice was enjoyable read overall, however, and I look forward to reading more of Shafak’s work in the future.