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A good novel about the Siege of Constantinople of 1453
on 3 June 2010
I have always been surprised that the epic siege of Constantinople in 1453, which saw the city fall to the Ottoman Turks, had not been novelised before - or, if it had, I was not aware of it. It was such a momentous event, signalling the final death throes of the Roman Empire, which had clung on in some form or another throughout the Byzantine period; so momentous, indeed, that the day on which the city fell, a Tuesday, has remained a bad luck day for the Greeks ever since.
Jack Hight has redressed the balance with this novel, "Siege", which has as its main character Longo, the historical commander of the defending forces at Constantinople. Obviously, much of Longo's (and other characters') back stories have been invented by Hight, but he starts us off in 1448, after the Turks' defeat of the Christian armies at Kossovo. From there the action moves to Constantinople, then to Italy, before coming back to the Byzantine capital for the siege itself in the final part of the novel. Interspersed with the actions of the Christian heroes, Hight takes us inside the Ottoman imperial household, recreating the tensions between the Sultan Murad and his young son Mehmed, who had already been an unsuccessful sultan once, before Murad's death propelled him back to the imperial throne - and his attack on Constantinople.
Hight deals with the intrigues of the Byzantine and Ottoman courts well, simplifying some of the theological details (a wise decision), and providing explanations for some of the more intriguing aspects of the siege itself - why, for example, Mehmed's Grand Vizier was executed at the end of the siege, and how the Turks managed to gain entrance to the city itself. Lacking any historical explanations, Hight's fictionalised explanations hold up reasonably well.
I enjoyed "Siege". I didn't really find the battle scenes quite as thrilling as I hoped I would; but they were solid and dependable, which is perhaps all one can ask. The love story element was rather predictable, and perhaps not entirely necessary; although it did provide some fresh motivations for the characters. Overall I would recommend the novel, particularly if one doesn't really know much about what was going on in the 15th century, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean. I wonder whether Hight should have included a note at the end to explain quite why the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was such an important event, and how it laid open the rest of Europe to future Ottoman attempts - considering the later Ottomans made it to the gates of Vienna, the danger their capture of Constantinople presented might have been made more explicit.