Most helpful critical review
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Room for improvement...
on 21 August 2012
I hesitated for a long time before buying this book, despite all the glowing reviews that it has attracted on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. What finally tempted me was that it was on Byzantium and that the story was taking place during the 11th century before the First Crusade, which happens to be my favourite period currently. This originality - picking a period that few novelist have tackled up to now (the only ones I can remember were a couple of novels writing in the 70s or early 80s and that were centred around the battle of Mantzikert in 1071) - turns out to be both an asset and a liability for the author. While reading a novel taking place on the borders of the Byzantine Empire during the 11th century is a nice change, it is also more difficult to achieve, because the period is much less well known that, say, the Roman Empire during the first three hundred years AD.
Having said this, I am afraid that I will have to disagree with almost everything mentioned by other reviewers. This book did not work for me. I did not like it for essentially three reasons: the plot, the characters and the historical context.
I found that the plot was mostly a collection of clichés. It was predictable from the very beginning: the crippled boy is going to become a hero and he will "save it all", almost single-handed, of course. At least some of these were entirely implausible. Another reviewer on Amazon.com (D. Connell "Doug") has already mentioned some of them although, curiously, he concludes that the characters are all very realistic. How realistic is it to have a young crippled boy (about 12-13) learning fencing and becoming a proficient swordsman? How realistic is it to have this boy driving his adoptive father's chariot on his own (and then together with the daughter of his adoptive father) across a province supposedly unsafe to get to the market of Cheriana? How realistic is it for the arch-villain officer who happens to have a significant racket business to kill of out of hand anyone who refuses to pay and get away with it? Even a so-called "Agentes" (a term that only applied for the fourth and fifth centuries AD) would not have got away with so many serial and casual murders. How realistic is it that Apion, our crippled boy, manages to face four armed and grown up killers for even a split second? How realistic is it that the boy, crippled as he is, is even accepted in the thema when he decides to join the army? How realistic is it that his limp disappears and he becomes able to walk and run "normally" with no bones broken? I could go on, and on, and on but you get the point: all of this is so hard to believe that I wondered at some point if this book was not in fact some kind of heroic fantasy for teen-agers...
Then we have the characters and the style. Here also, the clichés seem to come to the author: adoptive father taking in a crippled boy to atone for a past and secret sin, crippled boy who, of course, falls in love with his adoptive father's daughter but cannot think of anything else than vengeance. Arch-villain's psychopathic behaviour "explained" by a trauma in his youth when his mother had her throat cut in front in him (I'm rather unsure as to what this was supposed to "explain" or add to the story however). Young girl in love with two boys at the same time (some romance and sex needed to check the appropriate boxes). After that we have the book's style. There is very little description of places and sceneries, so that the action could be taking place almost anywhere and oppose, say, the Tang Chinese and steppe nomads, instead of the Byzantines and the Seljuk Turks, provided you changed all names and modified all references to troop types and military equipment. Essentially, the book is made up of dialogues and battle scenes: the hero always seem to be talking to someone or fighting someone when he is not talking. Of course, in the second half of the book, when he fights someone, he always wins, even when hopelessly outnumbered. I almost forgot to mention how exaggerated and gory the battle scenes happen to be: heads flying and guts spilling all over the place...
Then there is the historical context and research. There are a large number of mistakes and inaccuracies, including in the glossary. Although some inaccuracies might be deliberately introduced to create a dramatic effect, they can nevertheless be problematic. The worst howler I came across was the clichés of "Muslim versus Christians" with the former crying "Allahu Akbar" and the - victorious of course - Strategos concluding by a "Nobiscum Deus!" - a "holy victory cry", as the author puts it. First, Byzantines from the Sixth Century onward and certainly by the 11th century spook Greek, not Latin. Greek-speaking was even one of the three components of what it meant to be a "Roman", as the Byzantines called themselves. Second, Byzantine warfare was largely devoid of any concept of "Holy War" and "Holy War" had also gone rather out of fashion among the Muslims by the 11th century although it would come back into fashion, thanks to the Crusades. Third, even the Latin quotation seems incorrect and should probably be "Deus Nobiscum" (God is with us). Fourth, rather than "a holy victory cry", it was originally a war cry to bolster morale as Western Christian troops entered battle.
In addition to this, there are a number of anachronisms. Contrary to the impression given in the book, there was no such thing as an average number of troops for each thema. These varied in size and in the number of part-time soldiers that could be raised. Even the size of subunits (Tourma, droungos, bandon) varied significantly in size from one theme to another and one district to another within each theme. Moreover, the indicative numbers provided by the author are relevant for the ninth century. By the eleventh century, both the size and the quality of thematic troops had been reduced and deteriorated for a number of reasons, including the fact that as the frontiers were pushed further back, the thematic troops of themes that had previously been on the border were no longer useful and therefore no longer mustered. A third example of problems is the chronology, with the prologue set in AD 1026 and the strategos Cydones declaring that "the years ahead will be troubled and dark for Byzantium." I appreciate that this and numerous similar statements are inserted for dramatic effect. The only problem is that, in AD 1026 the Empire was at peace. One of its greatest Solider-Emperors (Basile II) had tended the year before after having extensively campaigned in Armenia and Iberia at the end of his reign, and there was simply NO threat on the eastern frontier of the Empire. Up to AD 1040, when they finally conquered the rival Ghaznavids in actual Afghanistan, the Seljuks had other "fish to fry" than go raiding the Byzantine Empire. There are also problems with the glossary. The tagmata (which means "the regiments" - of full-time professional troops - that are referred to in the glossary are in fact those of the 8th and 9th centuries and they were never around five thousand men each (something that the author has picked up from Warren Treadgold) simply because the Empire would have been unable to afford the cost of maintaining some 25000 of them on a full-time basis. Their total number at the time was more likely around 4000. By the 11th century, however, they were no longer clustered around Constantinople but spread all along the borders and under the command of various Dukes who also had authority over any Strategos whose province was part of their military district. The number of Tagmata had significantly increased since around AD 800. Numerous regiments of foreigners (generally lumped up as "foreign mercenaries") such as Franks (starting with Norman knights), Rus and Petchnègues were added and additional Tagmas of Greeks were also raised. Again, sizes varied considerably but there was a tendency for smaller and more flexible units of 200 to 500 men, the size of the old bandon (with the bandon being reduced to around 50-60 troopers).
As you can see from this overlong review (and there is a host of issues which I failed to mention), this book has a number of problems. While those related to the plot, style and characters may be subjective to some extent (personal opinions etc...), the issues pertaining to the historical context and research are not. There seems to be a reason for the absence of historical novels on this period and it has to do with its complexity, which the author may not have fully grasped when he embarked on this project.
If I may make some suggestions for the historical background, so that the historical setting for the next episode may be improved, I would recommend the following:
- The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204, A Political History, by Michael Angold, in particular the first five chapters (roughly 100 pages)
- Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 565-1204, by John Haldon
- The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025, by Mark Whittow, which may be of particular interest to the author in order to understand the shift in strategy and military practices that took place during the 10th and then again during the 11th centuries.