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A Review of

Valide: A Novel of the Harem

by Barbara Chase-Riboud




This historical fiction is based on the life of a Creole girl who became a slave in the Ottoman harem after the ship she was traveling on was captured by pirates. It tells of the intrigue of harem life, and her eventual rise to become the most powerful woman in the empire. Cover



Fact Sheet


Valide: A Novel of the Harem


Barbara Chase-Riboud




William Morrow & Company, Inc.


Historical Fiction



Number of Pages


Published In





This novel dramatizes the real-life story of an American Creole girl who became a slave named Naksh-i-dil in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid I after the ship she was traveling on was captured by pirates. It tells of her rise through the ranks of the harem women, culminating in becoming an empress in her own right. This is a story of enslaved women, assassination attempts, and political machinations.

This book is a "must read" for anyone who has any interest at all in the Ottoman era of Turkish history and life in the Topkapi harem. It tells the life story of a strong, fascinating woman and the 18th-century times in which she lived: the reign of Catherine The Great of Russia, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the emergence of the United States as a new power noticed by the world. The characters are well developed, and their story is told so well that it's easy to forget that the mere act of reading this book is highly educational.

Because there are a few sex scenes in this book, I wouldn't recommend it for younger readers. There aren't very many such scenes, and they're generally not very explicit, so I don't think most adults would find them too objectionable.

There has been some controversy surrounding this book. The author has been accused of lifting entire passages from The Harem: Inside the Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans by N. M. Penzer, without providing any attribution to the source. The Harem is a scholarly book published in 1936, and Chase-Riboud has confessed to using the material.



Is It Right for You?


You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You enjoy historical fiction.
  • You appreciate authors who perform extensive research on the historical details of the time and place in which their fictional characters live.
  • You're fascinated by the Ottoman harem.
  • You appreciate books with strong, intelligent female characters.


This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You have no interest in what life was like in the Ottoman harem.



What I Liked, What I Didn't


What I Liked:

  • This book debunks many of the romantic myths that the harem fantasy movies of the early 20th century and the European Orientalists before them have planted in our minds about harem life.
  • This book provides a meticulously-researched view of the social structure, laws, Islamic religious views, and day-to-day life of Ottoman society.
  • Not only does this book describe life inside the harem, it sets it against the backdrop of great events occurring in the outside world.
  • Valide offers an education on major European historical events of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it does so with such dramatic flair that it's fascinating to read.
  • The strong character development makes historical figures come to life.
  • In between the many action scenes, the book inserts a little philosophizing - just enough to provoke thought. It compares the Ottoman harem to a Christian convent, and in one interesting scene a priest has a crisis of faith as he compares religious philosophies with the Chief Black Eunuch.


What I Didn't Like:

  • This is not what I would call a relaxing book. It offers a large cast of characters whose lives intertwine, it relates a series of complex historical events, and it is peppered with many unfamiliar words such as odalisque, gozde, ikbal, kadine, and valide. (All are varying levels of caste in the social system of the harem.)
  • In order to follow the story, it's necessary to absorb all these names and events and remember how they relate to each other. Readers who don't share my passion for learning about the Ottoman world might decide this book is too difficult to be worth the effort of reading it.
  • The book begins with a map showing the layout of the Topkapi palace, including the harem. I found myself really, really wishing it would have included two additional maps: one showing the layout of European borders and the Mediterranean rim at the time the story takes place (just where the heck is the Crimea, anyway?) and one of the city of Istanbul at that time to show where the landmarks such as the Eski Serai, Topkapi palace, and other places were with respect to each other. These helps would have made parts of the book much easier for me to follow.




The first time I read this book was in 1986, shortly after it was published. I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time, and later decided to read it again to review it for my web site. Even though I knew what to expect in the plot the second time around, I still found myself absorbed by all the incredible detail.

If you'd like to learn a large amount in a short time about the Topkapi harem, the people who lived in it, and the real-life events surrounding it in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this book is an enjoyable way to do it. Although crammed with detailed research, its fictional telling of the events makes it lively to read and puts a human face on this era of history. I enjoyed this book enough to give it 5 stars, but I acknowledge it may not be for everybody.




There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anyone associated with this book.




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