The Merchant’s Pearl, a historical novel, is a fascinating look into a world few know existed, with fictional characters that bring the real history to life.
Leila is a slave in the Sultan’s palace during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Now 18, she has spent the past several years of her life in training for the honorable role of concubine. Other girls would kill for the chance to serve in the Sultan’s harem—for the opportunity to be called wife and raise an heir to the throne—but Leila wishes for nothing more than to go unnoticed by the indulgent ruler and his sons.
Living in opulence and serving royalty is regarded as noble for most of the servants, who would be starving or dead had they not been taken in. But Leila’s despair in her captivity is derived from her past. What her slave masters don’t know is that Leila is not who they think she is. She is the adopted daughter of missionaries. She is Sarai.
While Sarai’s parent’s loved her unconditionally and placed little value on her remarkable beauty, in the palace, it is her loveliness that has put her in contention for the attention of the Sultan. When the Sultan, Abdul’Aziz, dismisses her, she believes the worst is over until she is chosen by his son, Prince Emre.
When Prince Emre does not take Leila into his bed and instead offers her sexual sanctuary, hundreds of years of royal tradition are set aside, leaving Leila and Emre to figure out their contentious and illegal relationship on their own. Emre makes his strong feelings for Leila and his plan to win her heart clear, but she doubts his true intentions at every turn. Still, she finds her prince to be the one ray of light in her lavish prison.
When she can no longer deny her feelings, Leila must make a difficult choice. Emre’s proclamations of adoration for her fall short when she realizes that she can never be anything more than his “favorite” among the other gorgeous women he must bed, according to the law. She is forced to decide if she can share Emre with the other concubines or live a life of captivity apart from him.
Leila’s parents gave her the gift of a love that knew no bounds, which makes the palace all the more unbearable. Yet, she fears that her stubbornness, her refusal to accept her station, will condemn her to a life of misery. She is uncertain that her murdered parent’s love and the love of her God can sustain her.
In flashback, we see Leila as an 11-year-old discover that she is adopted, a revelation that shatters her whole world. Her strong bond with her parents suddenly seems false and she feels different from them. She is not theirs, she is far from home, and she no longer feels tied to anyone.
Leila doesn’t have time to reconcile her feelings before her parents are murdered and she is sold into slavery. She carries this sense of inadequacy and disconnection with her through the trauma of being sold and moved into the palace, where she puts up massive walls around her heart to protect herself from further harm
The book doesn’t dwell on Leila’s adoption and does not mention her birth parents or a curiosity about them (perhaps in the next book?) She seems to have accepted her adoption as a part of who she is and regrets the unkind words she said to her father, her hero, before he passed.
Still, adoptees may relate to Leila’s struggle to find herself. This enthralling story is woven with themes of worth, faith, love, and identity. Sarai, now Leila, must decide who she is and what she believes now that everything and everyone she has ever loved has been taken from her.
The over-the-top magnificence of the palace and the dysfunction of the royal family are from a historically accurate world that can only be imagined while Leila is grounded and authentic. She may be a concubine, but her impetuousness, independence, and resolve feel like that of a woman of today. She is flawed, complicated, and thoughtful, as is her tortured prince.
This is a novel that is picked up, read into the wee hours, and continued at every possible opportunity until the last page has been turned. It’s a book that leaves the reader with a renewed understanding of the human condition and, therefore, of herself.
The Merchant’s Pearl by Amie O’Brien is the first book in a series by the debut author. Read the first three chapters for free on Amazon or visit The Merchant’s Pearl website for other purchase options.
Note: This book is a fictional account of the real slavery that occurred in Turkey in the late 1800’s. This topic could not be presented without some adult content; however, the author handles the subject with grace and dignity.