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"The moment you take your oath accepting the...obligations of the imperial crown, you will be assigned a special mission."
on 22 April 2013
(3.5 stars) In a novel which defies genre, a Turkish businessman/professor in his thirties is visited by a representative of a secret organization and told that he is the natural successor to Constantine XI, the Byzantine emperor who died in 1475. The organization, Nomophylax (Guardians of the Law), has been guarding Constantine XI's fortune for the more than five hundred years, and they have secretly kept the throne-in-exile alive and continuously occupied. Long fascinated by the history of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted for over eleven hundred years before being finally defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the newly declared emperor-in-exile is anxious to investigate further, and it is these investigations which form the novel.
Telling his own story, he begins serious study at the Center for Research in Byzantine History at Chatham House in London, then goes to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, to study at their library in Byzantine Studies. His nearly full-time, world-wide travels then begin in earnest. He visits the crumbling remains of the Tekfur Palace in Istanbul, once occupied by Constantine XI, and it is at a meeting near that palace that he is given an unusual box. His mission is to find six tiles that fit into special slots in this box. Beginning his quest, he then visits, among other places, the Antioch Museum; then Athens, where he sees a statue of Constantine XI; and the Greek city of Mistra, near Sparta. Continuing on, he goes to Venice and Cappadocia in Italy, then to Nice, Seville, Lausanne, Hamburg, Nantes, and Liege. Eventually, he also visits Sao Paolo and Rhodes, always searching for the missing tiles.
This unusual novel refuses to be categorized. The story combines elements of a fantasy and a quest, providing a framework for the novel, but the fact that the speaker finds some of the tiles more by chance than through his own efforts suggests that the author has created this search primarily to allow the speaker to travel to well-described places important to Byzantine history, rather than to create and emphasize a clever plot. The speaker's travels do not involve hardship, financial or otherwise, and this is not a travel narrative in which a main character faces dangers on trips to exotic places around the globe. The emphasis on history slows down the narrative for those who are primarily interested in the quest and fantasy aspects of the novel, but will intrigue many readers unfamiliar with Byzantine history.
Though author Selcuk Altun includes numerous literary references throughout, it is clear that his primary purpose is to provide little known historical information to his readers within an unusual narrative. Detailed information about the order of the emperors and how they ascended to their thrones, the people they killed and maimed, and how they themselves died sometimes does make the novel sound like history book, but the author's sensuous descriptions are rich with details which help bring this history to life. With its panoramic view of Byzantine history and the empire's contributions throughout the world over the eleven hundred years of its existence, this unusual, non-traditional novel will intrigue many readers and may inspire some to continue their "travels" through Byzantium, in person or through additional reading.