Exploring Alternative Histories
Alternative history novels seem to be a fad right now, and some are better than others but trust me—even if you’ve read several, EMPIRE OF LIES by Raymond Khoury will blow your mind.
The story kicks off in Istanbul in 1683. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire is preparing to lay siege to Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire. A mysterious stranger arrives and gives him what turns out to be a world-changing message. The next thing we know it’s 2017 and Ottoman flags have been flying over Paris for 300 years. The Ottoman Empire has conquered all of Europe. We see it all from the point of view of Kamal Arslan Agha, an officer in the sultan’s secret police who is starting to question the way things are. While he is the book’s protagonist, Khoury thinks you might be uncomfortable if you met him in person.
“After all, he’s an agent of the sultan’s feared secret police,” he says. “But I think you’d eventually see the man behind the badge, and then you’d like him a lot. He believes in making a difference, but he’s not a dogmatic, blinded crusader. He also has a big heart, and he’s suffering being in love with someone he can’t have. For me, he’s definitely a hero.”
In fact, as the character is introduced, he’s being celebrated as a hero—but this perception crumbles as he digs deeper into the values of the system he’s sworn to protect. Reports of an imminent war with the Christian Republic of America, attacks by violent extremists, and economic collapse have boosted arrests. And then a mysterious stranger—who we readers have seen appear in Paris and Kamal—is sent to investigate.
The story is so radical, yet so on point, I wondered where Khoury got such an idea. It turns out he’s been puzzling for a long time about whether an Islamic country could co-exist with the more modern societies of our world, or if the opposing values would lead to inevitable conflict.
“The initial idea that coalesced out of that questioning was about a conquered Europe living under the sword of Islam,” Khoury says, “and a different outcome to the Siege of Vienna was a natural way to make that happen. But I felt the story I wanted to tell was too limited, and it’s only when my inner muse really got her act together and told me it happened because of a time traveler that it all fell into place.”
This made it a much bigger adventure, expanding the scope of the book in a way that allowed Khoury to really examine our reality because, as he says, “We do live in uncomfortable, disturbing times.” In fact, Khoury says that many of the worst aspects he wanted to give his alternate world were things we now see in our own world.
“I had initially pictured the Ottoman Europe of 2017 to be a bit like the crumbling USSR of the 1970s and 1980s,” Khoury says, “but it felt far more relevant to give it the worst of our modern Western world—the rise of demagogues, intolerance, nativism, the crumbling of free speech, the eroding of hard-won attitudes towards minorities and towards the environment, state surveillance, and the blatant prevalence of lies. It’s different in that people across Europe dress as people now do in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but otherwise, it’s not that different. It’s perhaps better in that it hasn’t had World Wars, the Holocaust, Stalin, or Pol Pot. But it’s worse in that people aren’t free to choose how they want to live, a hard-won freedom which is now at risk in so many ways all around us.”
All that said, you shouldn’t think Khoury built this new world from whole cloth. He assured me that the research for this book was monstrous.
“I knew very little about the Ottomans before I set out to write it,” Khoury says, “and the difficulty was that although the Ottoman Empire tried various modernizing reforms in its last couple of centuries, I couldn’t use any of that since these reforms were an effort to copy the gallopingly-developing West, which doesn’t exist in my alternate reality, where the Ottomans are the standard-bearers themselves. “
So he had to take the empire of 1720 and extrapolate forward from there: the technology, the culture, social development, and everything else.
“As I approached the book, I feared it might come off as an attack on Islam. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. This story is, first and foremost, a time-travel, alternate reality adventure.
“It’s the story of a man who discovers a horrific lie and has to decide what to do about it,” Khoury says. “Beyond that, it’s an exploration of ways of governance, not religion. It’s about democracy versus absolute rule, about a free society versus living under a tyrant. It’s not at all about religion; in fact, the Ottomans in my book—who are, by definition, Muslims—are dealing with Islamist terrorism coming out of Saudi Arabia, which the Ottomans did have to deal with. All of the lead characters in the book, and that includes our hero Kamal, are Ottoman, and are therefore Muslim.”
And Kamal is trying to unravel the truth behind the empire’s conquest of Europe, which, as with most of his fellow Ottomans, he’s always believed to be the will of God. And as great as that story is, it’s not the end.
“There are endless possibilities for sequels and spin-offs to this book,” Khoury says, “and there’s a natural sequel I’m hoping to dive into soon.”
But you don’t want to be left behind, so dive into EMPIRE OF LIES as soon as you can. It’s an outstanding what-if type thriller that will drag you into a fascinating alternate universe and make you think about the world we live in.