As happens when one writes historical fiction, sometimes the lines blur. I am in a blurry area now in The Necromancer’s Grimoire, the sequel to The Hermetica of Elysium. I have introduced a character who was a real man in 1495, Ahmed Kemaleddin Reis, newly appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet. So I must do my research to make sure I do not dishonor him by keeping him alive when he was dead, or killing him while he was alive.
I have found precious little about this man. This is good and bad. It is good because it gives me a lot of room to write about him. It is bad because the more I learn, the more I wish there was more. Kemal Reis was widely respected in his day for his seamanship and his honor. He was one of the first to arm his fleet with cannon. He was sent by his sultan to Spain to rescue and evacuate more than a thousand Jews from Cadiz after Ferdinand and Isabella made it lethal to be a Jew in that country. He was known for his encyclopedic memory of the coastlines of the Mediterranean and of the waves and the wind. He was a dreaded privateer in his youth, and men fought to be members of his crew on his ships.
Which brings up issues about historical fiction in the first place. The Reis lived long enough ago and in such as faded area of history that if I keep the known facts correct, I can probably enjoy some freedom with his personal life. But because he was such a magnificent man, part of me feels guilty messing with him. In my imagination, his much more famous nephew, Piri Reis, looks down on me from history with a stern no-nonsense expression. Piri became his uncle’s shadow at the age of 13. Most likely they were rarely separated and everything Piri knew he learned from his father’s brother.
As I researched Kemal Reis, I found a eulogy written by Piri by way of the introduction to his magnum opus, the Kitab-ı Bahriye . This poem was so lovingly contructed that even in translation one can hear his grief. When I read this the first time, I said to myself, I must put this man Kemaleddin in the novel and resurrect him. He cannot just be a slight mention or a chance meeting in Istanbul. Kemal must come alive again.
And so he will. You will meet him up close and very very personal.
Here is the eulogy:
Good friend, I want you
To remember us in your prayers,
And remember Kemal Reis, our master,
May his soul be content!
He had perfect knowledge of the seas
And knew the science of navigation.
He knew innumerable seas;
No one could stop him…
We sailed the Mediterranean together
And saw all its great cities.
We went to Frankish lands
And defeated the infidel.
One day an order from
Sultan Bayezid arrived.
“Tell Kemal Reis to come to me,”
It said, “and advise me on affairs of the sea.”
So in 1495, the year of this command,
We returned to our country.
By the sultan’s command we set out
And won many victories…
Kemal Reis sailed hoping to come back,
But was lost at sea.
Everyone once spoke of him;
Now even his name is forgotten…
The angel of death caught him
While he was serving Sultan Bayezid.
May God give peace to those
Who remember Kemal Reis with a prayer.
Kemal died and went to the next world
And we found ourselves alone in this.
Kemal drowned in 1510 around the age of 60, 15 years after that letter from the sultan asking for his advice. His ship went down with several others during a violent storm in the Mediteranean. He was commanding a fleet of 35 ships and protected a shipment of iron, wood, arrows, guns, gunpowder, and copper from Istanbul to Alexandria. His loss was a severe blow to the Ottoman navy.
(Piri has been brought to life again in Assassin’s Creed, though the game description of him that I read took great liberties with history. I love the costume, however.)