Harry Turtledove is the award-winning author of the alternate-history works The Man with the Iron Heart; The Guns of the South; How Few Remain (winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Novel); the Worldwar saga: In the Balance, Tilting the Balance, Upsetting the Balance, and Striking the Balance; the Colonization books: Second Contact, Down to Earth, and Aftershocks; the Great War epics: American Front, Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs; the American Empire novels: Blood & Iron, The Center Cannot Hold, and Victorious Opposition; and the Settling Accounts series: Return Engagement, Drive to the East, The Grapple, and In at the Death. Turtledove is married to fellow novelist Laura Frankos. They have three daughters: Alison, Rachel, and Rebecca.
This is one of Harry Turtledove's better books, as it is a self-contained volume and does not stretch into several tomes as some of his works are wont to do. It also focuses on a period of history little known to many in the English-speaking world, that of the Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages. Unusually for Turtledove, there is only one protagonist in this book, unlike the large casts that he brings into his later works. The main character is a soldier who after an initial military intelligence operation is recruited into the Byzantine secret service, investigating Byzantium's potential enemies at home and abroad. In this alternative history, the biggest difference is that Mohammed became a Christian bishop instead of founding Islam, with the result that the two great world powers of the Middle Ages are Byzantium and the Persian Empire (both of which in "real" history were eventually overthrown by tribes owing their allegiance to Islam. The agent, Basil, is something of a world-weary character, whose only affinity with certain other literary super-spies is the amount of times he happens to be in the right place to deal with trouble. Nevertheless this is a fascinating set of stories whose charm lies as much in the historical setting and the theology and science of the day as in the action.
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Whatever else you say about it this is a most interesting novel. Or rather a most interesting collection of short stories. It takes place in a world where Rome never fell. Most alternate history novels (ie: the good ones) have a specific point of divergence where one minor event changes everything. This one revolves around the prophet Mohammed. In this universe, instead of becoming the leader of a new religion he converts to Christianity and lives out the remainder of his days in a monastery in Spain. St. Mouamet, as he is called, is now the patron saint of changes. Which is pretty funny when you think about it. Without the Islamic Conquests a damaged Rome was able to recover itself in time to prevent the disintegration of much of its empire, and even reconquer some new ground.
All of this is ancient history of course, since it's now the early 14th Century in a world almost unrecognizable to medieval Europe. England is still ruled by the Saxons, the Franks are stuck in Germany, the Persians rule in the East, and Rome controls the Mediterranean. That's where our main character comes in. Basil Argyros is (at least by the second story) a magistrianos, the Greek word for the agentes in rebus of the later Roman era. Basically he is a secret agent out to ensure Rome stays in control. The problems he is sent to deal with generally involve some new technology or new ideas that are creeping into the world. He's an expert at figuring out how to make use of new things (Mouamet is his patron saint) so whenever something new happens he's first to see it. This leads to one of the problems with these stories which is that they can get repetitive. Something that we know of but he doesn't shows up, he figures out its secrets, everybody wins.Read more ›
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I read this book when I was a young teen. And I was entralled by it. I have to admit that I haven't been near it for years and its episodic construction is pretty loose, but I do recommend it. If nothing else, its a fun introduction to Byzantium.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Good Alternate History Fun25 Oct. 1998
- Published on Amazon.com
A great collection of seven stories set in an early fourteenth-century version of Earth where Islam is absent. The Byzantine Empire retained its eastern holdings and swallowed up most of western Europe as well. Their main rival is the Persian Empire which also never fell in Turtledove's well thought-out alternate world. The stories span 15 years in the life of Basil, a soldier and eventual "agent" (read spy) for the Byzantine Empire. Great fun!
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The Name's Argyros, Basil Argyros29 Sept. 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
Imagine a 13th century Mediterranean and Middle East...
-Where the territories of western and southern Europe won back by the Romans during the 6th century reign of Justinian were not only maintained but expanded. -Muhammad never developed Islam. Instead he converted to Christianity, becoming a holy man, and is now venerated as St. Moaumet.
In the absence of Islam's rise, both the Roman and Sassanid Persian (which has by now engulfed the entire Arabian Peninsula) empires remain as the two superpowers, existing in a sort of medieval cold war.
Into this world comes Basil Argyros, an agent of the Magistrianoi, the imperial secret police; sometimes he acts as a soldier, but more often he's a spy. During the course of his assignments as an agent of Imperial security, Basil also makes some exciting discoveries, thus making him an agent in another sense: as one who brings change and advancement to the Empire. From the Franks he steals a new weapon, recently cooked up by their monks--gunpowder. He returns from the lands of the Asiatic Jurchen nomads north of the Black Sea with an instrument we know as the telescope. He delivers to the emperor the secrets of printing, a recent Persian invention they've been using to foment insurrection in the Empire's eastern provinces. What perhaps is the most fascinating of all is Basil's witnessing the discovery of inoculation, made during a time of catastrophic plague in Constantinople.
Basil's nemesis in many of these stories is the beautiful and deviously clever Persian spy, Mirrane. As the two of them match wits, they develop a mutual respect and admiration, eventually falling deeply in love.
The Baen paperback edition contains the following seven stories:
"The Eyes of Argos" "Strange Eruptions" "Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire" "Unholy Trinity" "Archetypes" "Images" "Superwine"
Only this edition contains the story "Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Fire;" however, that story can also be found in Harry Turtledove's alt-history collection DEPARTURES (which also includes "Islands in the Sea," the story about Muhammad's aforementioned conversion to the Christian Faith.)
As someone with a Ph.D in Byzantine studies, Harry Turtledove knows the peoples and times upon which he bases this alternative world, making it a fun, fascinating read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Great alternate history from the master26 April 1997
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Harry Turtledove knows his history, and it is the mark of a great writer that he can make you interested in what has been a rather obscure part of the historical record. Most of us are familiar with the concept of the Byzantine Empire, but know little of its actual nuts and bolts. Mr. Turtledove presents a set of connected short stories in which his hero foils diverse machinations against his employer. I was intrigued, and looked stuff up in the encyclopedia afterwards, and found the whole thing quite fun
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
One of Turtledove's first works18 July 2008
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The reader is given several stories but all about Basil, a soldier for Byzantium. Basil loses his family in a plague and changes his career to a secret agent. The part where Basil loses his family to a plague is quite touching. I give a salute to the writing of Turtledove that he spares the reader the death of Basil's son by having Basil give him opium for the pain until the end, the child merely stops breathing instead of going through the agony of small pox.
Now, this is important. In one of the stories its found how to innoculate the population from diseases. Small Pox destroys large amounts of Byzantium's populace. This discovery is make 600 years before the discovery in Westerm Europe. So, the people running the Byzantium government work to insure the health of their citizens. The Byzantium army is spared the ravages of disease and is able to beat threats from Persian armies.
Harry goes into Greek fire, the secret of Byzantium's Naval success for years. It was natural that Basil is sent on a mission to discover the secret of black powder. This is the subject of one story and how it is employed in battles.
Basil also works to check the forces of Persia, what we now know as modern Iran. Strangely, while this story was written in 1987 the fact is the threat from Iran (Persia) seems just as real today. Basil battles a Persian spy who is quite like a Soviet spy master (remember, this was written in 1987). Basil is once again the hero and checks this threat from Persia and gains a lover to replace his late beloved wife.
Basil is also involved with one of the most weaking things that happen to Byzantium. It was a religious problem with Christianity and that involved the worship of Icons. People would worship the Icon of the cross instead of Jesus the son of God. While this does not seem of great concern to modern readers but form a historical context it's a deadly threat to Byzantium itself. Religious conflicts with the Roman Catholic church weaken Byzantium and let it be invaded by both Muslims and Western Europeans. Turtledove comes up with an solution to the icon problem that would actually not be available until the 16th century. Had the 16th printing press technology been availiable in the 12th Century then Muslim soldiers would not be standing in a ruined Constantinople in 1453.
Dr. Turtledove gives some sound historical reasons on how close it was for Byzantium (actually the real name was close to Romania)to being more of an eternal empire than the famous Roman empire that it outlasted by nearly 1000 years. Had just a few events and forces of nature been different then modern Islam would be a shawdow of its present self, the Protestant reformation would not have been needed, and we could have avoided lots of wars.
This is the middle of summer. This book is a good read and perfect for those summer vacations.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
When Turtledove when he really WAS the master of alternate history...12 Dec. 2012
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I recently finished the fourth volume of Harry Turtledove's latest series, "The War that Came Early," about an alternate history wherein Hitler started WWII in 1938, after meeting with Chamberlain at Munich, instead of in 1939 as it was in actual history, after Chamberlain and Daladier appeased the German dictator by betraying Czechoslovakia. That series still has, apparently, two books left to run, and sadly, after reading the first four books of the series, I doubt I will buy them. The problem with this series is that Turtledove has developed certain faults as a writer in recent years, and in his latest series, they are all on display. His biggest flaw by FAR is wearisome repetition. You see it over and over again in almost all his work from the last several years. "The War that Came Early" is no exception, where EVERY character, multiple times, is given the opportunity to reflect how crummy European cigarettes have become since the war started, and how harsh they are to smoke, but the only thing worse than bad tobacco is no tobacco. After hearing the fifth character reflect on that for the umpteenth time, I know far more than I need or care to about the quality of wartime European cigarettes and people's smoking habits. Another characteristic Turtledove flaw, as Amazon reviewer Elliott Zink pointed out, is that he continually has his main characters - the ones from whose perspective we are seeing the story unfold -- go through their thought process wherein a question is asked, the characters note their uncertainty or initial doubt, and then come to accept their initial decision. Not only does this draw out every decision the character must make - making it look like unnecessary filler, put in just to make the books longer - it has the effect of making all his characters seem exactly alike.
The reason I mention all this about a different Turtledove book entirely is to point out what a stark contrast his recent work is to this, much earlier work, which is actually a collection of short stories written for "Amazing Science Fiction Stories" and "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine," all of which were published between 1985 and 1989. I think the fact that these were short stories originally published in anthology magazines is probably precisely what prevented Turtledove from developing those flaws at that stage of his career. Magazines of that type have severe constraints of space, so stories published there are tightly edited for length, and writers have to develop the ability be concise and get the most out of their prose. I sometimes wonder if that isn't what made the "Golden Age of Science Fiction" golden - Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and the other writers of that era all wrote short stories for magazine publication for many, many years, and learned to be very descriptive and paint a vivid picture for the reader, without being excessively wordy. The constraints of the short story medium enforced some very good writing habits on these authors. When Turtledove was writing short stories, he couldn't afford to be too wordy either; his editors wouldn't have let him. His earlier novels, like the superb "Videssos Cycle" were written before he'd shed this ability to be concise, and to be descriptive without being wordy and repetitive.
Sadly, Turtledove has long since lost the discipline of being concise, and conveying a lot of information with a minimum of excess verbiage. But if you want to see what a great storyteller he could be, I highly recommend his earlier work, like "Agent of Byzantium" when he was a better, more disciplined writer. This series tells the story of Basil Argyros, an intelligence officer of an alternate-history Byzantine Empire, in which Islam never arose as a religion - Mohammed instead converted to Christianity and was eventually canonized as a Christian saint. The result is that by the fourteenth century, when the Argyros stories take place, the Empire is still the greatest power in the known world, and still covers the entire eastern Mediterranean basin, including almost all of Italy, rather than being an impoverished and declining state, retreating before the Arabs and the Turks whose territory had been chipped away to little more than Greece and Anatolia, as it was by then in historical reality. This is a really interesting premise for alternate history. Turtledove is actually a Byzantine scholar, so his familiarity with the Empire, its history, language, religion, culture, etc. is intimate, enabling him to flesh out even sparely written short stories with a weight of detail that greatly enhances the verisimilitude of these stories. All in all, this is first rate speculative fiction, which earned Turtledove the title "master of alternate history," and written when he looked like living up to the title, rather than simply resting on his laurels and phoning it it. Given that his habits have gotten worse over the last few years, and not better, and his publishers seem entirely willing to pay him according to the quantity, rather than the quality of his work, I see little hope of him reverting to his earlier greatness. That really is a great pity, for I can't think of a greater example of unfulfilled potential in this field. At least we have his earlier work, and I highly recommend his material from that period.