CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 7. . . .October 21, 2016
It’s 1807, and a sailboat, piloted by a young woman, drifts towards Constantinople’s harbor; minarets and the imposing dome of the Hagia Sophia dot the skyline. Meanwhile, in a local inn, a dejected looking young Janissary (a soldier of the Ottoman Sultan’s house guards and infantry) drinks tea. It’s payday for the soldiers, but he doesn’t seem too happy. The innkeeper seems skeptical that wages will come through, telling the soldier that the tea is “on the house”. But, the young lieutenant is a man of honour (as well as linguistic elaboration), telling the innkeeper, “I’ll tell you exactly the ingredients you’ve employed here, and in exchange, you will allow me to remunerate you fairly.” (p. 2) The tea is an elaborate blended infusion of spices, red rooibos, and dried florals. When Lt. Erdemoglu Selim recites the ingredient list, the inn-keeper’s response is “Wow” (p. 3). Selim is pleased, both with his tasting skills and his generosity’s being accepted. And then, he heads off to the imperial palace. A pile of coins has been heaped in a huge reception hall, and at a signal, the Janissary Corps members charge the heap of coins, where they scramble and scrap for whatever they can get, while a group of foreign dignitaries watch the melee with detached and polite amusement. At the end of the free-for-all, the tea-drinking Lieutenant returns home, bruised and dispirited. But, his hopes of enjoying a consoling cup of tea are soon dashed. He is summoned back to the palace where his skill as an elegant speaker of the English language is now needed.
The pilot of that beautiful boat sailing into Constantinople’s harbor is languishing in an imperial prison, shackled and dishevelled. Lt. Selim is assigned to interrogate her. It is said that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and, in this case, Selim’s ability to make an amazing cup of tea completely disarms the prisoner, Delilah Dirk. Readers learn that Delilah is the daughter of a Greek mother and an English father. As a diplomat’s daughter, the shock-haired Delilah has travelled the world, all the while learning and honing the skills which make her a highly talented combatant. Truly talented as a swordswoman, she has “mastered 47 different sword-fighting techniques” (p. 18), and claims the ability to “pick any lock and escape any restraint, no matter how well-built or complex . . . she can dismember a man in mere seconds . . . and she claims to be able to walk through perfectly solid walls.” (p. 21) Not only that, she is also “a high-ranking member of three imperial courts”. (p. 19) So, what is she doing in Turkey? It seems that she has a plan to “ “repatriate”, as she puts it, several of His Majesty’s ancient scrolls.” (p. 22) And just as Selim wraps up his report to the Sultan, Delilah proves that she wasn’t just boasting. She pops out of a wall, kills a couple of guards and makes a break for it.
The Sultan scoffs at the possibility that a woman could be a skilled fighter, but disdain quickly turns to rage, not only at this vile and sinful young woman, but at Selim for having shown kindness to this prisoner, behavior unworthy of a lieutenant in the Janissary corps. The Sultan orders both Delilah and Selim to be killed, but just as the scimitar is about to drop on Selim’s neck, Delilah saves him (after having dispatched a few guards and the executioner). Somewhat desperate to save his honour, Selim challenges her to a duel, but the Sultan wants results and once again orders the death of “the thief” (i.e. Delilah) and “the traitor” (i.e. Selim) (p. 29). The guards rush at the two, and an incredible display of slicing, swiping, and death by Delilah’s blade ensues. And then, the two rush out of the palace, disappear into the teeming city streets, and exit the city walls to the little cove where Delilah’s craft is moored. Selim asks Delilah why she cut him loose from the executioner’s block. Her reply, “Because, Mr. Selim . . . you make the finest tea in all of Europe,” (p. 34) proves that she is also dangerously charming. And with that, this quiet Turkish lieutenant sets off on a life of adventure and mayhem.
Have you caught your breath? At this point, you’d be only 34 pages into the book and just finishing Chapter 1. This is a book for which the term “action-packed” is an understatement. Travel with Delilah is a state of constant white-water, even on land. As Chapter 2 begins with an apparently peaceful sail-away from Constantinople, larger craft emerge alongside, and Mr. Selim’s inexperience on water make for a tense moment before Delilah pulls hard on a rope and the boat sprouts a set of side-sails. To Mr. Selim’s surprise, ‘Her stories had been true! Or this one was, at least. We were flying.” (p. 39) Delilah and Selim become “travelling buddies” (p. 42) and, once back on land, embark on a series of adventures, the start of which is motivated by her sense of justice: the returning of stolen treasure to a merchant whose 13 ships have been robbed by Pirate Captain Zakul. In doing so, they escape Zakul’s wrath after having burned the bridge to his storehouse; plummet back to the ground, after Selim accidentally sets their ship on fire; and escape yet again from Zakul’s army, after which they wander through the countryside, putting some distance between themselves and their enemies.
It’s a tough life, even for an army man, but they continue on, “eating what we caught and sleeping when we couldn’t take another step.” (p. 125) Selim asks Delilah how she can put up with life in the wilderness: “Wouldn’t you rather be sleeping in a soft, warm bed? Eat at a lavish state dinner? Or those English balls – I hear they’re very extravagant.” Delilah replies: “They’re hot, sweaty, the air stinks – candle wax, sweat, perfume – blech -- and the jewelry and the fashion are all a horrible game of one-upmanship . . . No one says what they mean, and everyone pretends to be something they’re not.” (p. 125) Finally, they reach the town of Kardaki, and after a 10-day sojourn in which poor Selim finally sleeps well, he decides to part company with Delilah. He tells her, “I’m sorry, I’m not meant for your lifestyle.” (p. 136) But after months of a quiet and unadventurous life, he becomes restive and leaves Kardaki to find Delilah. One day, as Selim walks down a quiet street in a town called Ipsala, there’s a sudden explosion, a wall blows open, and three men rocket out. The dust clears, there’s a friendly “Hi, Selim!”, an angry mini-mob bursts through the breach in the building, and an epic, multi-page fight is on. But, of course, the two escape, and, once on a peaceful country path, they catch up on the past months spent apart.
The conversation is a bit awkward and certainly not flirtatious, although it’s clear that they do like each other a great deal. Delilah makes it clear that she wants a reliable partner, not someone “who will go weak in the knees for the next cozy village we happen upon”, and Selim is equally adamant that in order to find her, he’s proven his worth. He’s “had to fend off angry mobs; . . . soothed blisters and bruises – kept [her] from being shot in the back.” (p. 162) Besides, he misses the “excitement and exploration . . . the freedom from routine and repetitions, the inherent wildness”. (p. 164) And so, the book ends with the two travelling companions walking off into the approaching sunset, Lt. Selim limping from a tumble from his horse.
I certainly enjoyed the story of Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant. The two of them are a study in contrasts: Selim is a handsome soldier, with a taste for quiet conversation and a talent for brewing and blending a very special cup of tea, while Delilah is energetic, defiant, and adventure-seeking. Woman are rarely described as “swashbuckling”, but with those knee-high cavalier-style boots, unruly mane of hair, and that deadly dirk, no other adjective fits. Selim is courtly, polite, and charmingly verbose. Delilah gets to the point (no pun intended) quickly, and her speech is quite contemporary. The story may be set in 1807, but Tony Cliff bends time and setting to make the story work. Cliff’s experience in the animation industry is evident in both the stunning visual detail of the illustrations, especially in the fight scenes, and in the story’s movement from frame to frame. Plenty of “sound” adds to the effectiveness of the illustration: waiting for Delilah as she sets up the raid on Zakul’s warehouse, we see/hear the “munch, munch” of the grazing horses, the “grumble, grumble” of Selim’s empty stomach, and the “tinkle, tinkle” of someone standing cliff-side to empty his bladder before returning for refills in the local tavern.
I couldn’t quite decide just how old Delilah is supposed to be, but I am guessing that she’s about 18. She still demonstrates plenty of adolescent rebelliousness, has the occasional bout of drama-queen emotion, and is frequently impulsive. But, she always has good intentions, even if the outcomes of her action typically end with mayhem and death. She certainly kills a great many people in this book, but her slain are collateral damage. Whatever else she may be, she’s not a murderess.
I think that both male and female readers would enjoy Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, but the sophistication of the language and the nineteenth century setting make this a book for a very capable reader. Delilah and Selim make for an interesting team, and it’s clear that there will be more excitement ahead for the two.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.