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Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart (Strategos 2) Kindle Edition
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The story takes place in 1067, some 12 years after the first volume. Apion, the hero, has become Strategos of Chaldia, replacing the old Cydones who has retired. The themata and its Strategos are still holding out - barely - against the attack of the Seljuks who are getting bolder and bolder in their attacks. Apion, and all other Strategos and Dukes are called to Constantinople after the death of Constantine X to choose a new Emperor who will shore up the frontiers and defend the Empire. This will be Romanos Diogenes, the victorious general (against the Petcheneges) who becomes Romanus IV and marries Eudoxia, the widow of his predecessor. The opposition of the Doukai clan, the relatives of the previous Emperor and of his infant sons makes the new Emperor's task perilous. Having failed to prevent his coronation, the Doukai will stop at nothing to dethrone the new emperor backed by Apion.
So, you can expect plenty of plotting and drama, and plenty of battles and fighting. Some are fiction, such as the assassination attempt against Romanus. Others do not seem to have happened quite as described by the author, such as the attack, storm and looting of Caesarea in Cappadocia, but all of them are quite griping.
Another interesting choice made by the author is to turn the historical Michael Psellos, the consummate bureaucrat and courtier who served four different Emperors and comes across as the ultimate political "survivor" into some kind of super-evil cruel and sadistic arch-villain. I was a bit surprised by this. It is a quite original piece of fiction and an interesting choice to make. While the importance of Psellos seems exaggerated in the novel, at least from what we know from the historical character, his role as adviser and client of the Doukai (he would later become the preceptor of the Doukai heir) makes this just about plausible. What is less plausible, however, is the portray that Gordon Doherty draws of John Doukas (the future Caesar) who is made into some kind of unscrupulous, over-ambitious, arrogant fool that Psellos manipulates. Rather than Psellos, John seems to have been the epitome of the consummate and power-hungry Byzantine noble seeking to promote the interests of his clan (and therefore his own) by fair means or foul. In other words, he was certainly no fool. IN fact, some fourteen years later, it is his quick reactions in sizing the taxes due to Constantinople and putting them at the disposal of the Komneni brothers (Isaac and Alexius, to whom John was related by then since Alexis had married Irene Doukai) which would allow Alexius to pay the troops with which he would size the throne.
Then there are a few gripes with the historical context. Contrary to what the author states in the book and shows on the maps, Melitene was not the last imperial city to the east, far from it. The Empire also included the whole of Cilicia (including Tarsus and Adana) and Antioch and Edessa. Antioch, capital of one of the most important frontier Duchies, would only fall to the Turks in 1085 and Edessa two years later. So I am afraid to say that the maps are wrong, regardless of whether the borders of the various themes are correct or not (and some of them definitely look strange).
More generally, my main gripe is the author's tendency to "overdo it" in terms of drama to the extent that the story becomes simply implausible at times. So, you get the -rather exaggerated - impression that the frontier themes, and the Empire in general, are on the brink of collapse. Every battle sees the Byzantine forces loose most of their effectives with only a handful of survivors making it to fight another day, including when they are victorious. I could not help wondering, since this had been already the case in the first volume, how on earth the theme of Charsianon (and all the others) could replace their losses, assuming they were so grievous.
At one point, and given the huge losses that the Byzantines in general, and Apion's thema in particular (about three-quarters), suffer during the expedition to Hierapolis; I could not help wondering if this was realistic. In the last battle in particular, a couple of thousand battered infantry and some three hundred heavy cavalry (out of an initial army of some seven thousand which was probably low to begin with for an army in the presence of the Emperor) win and slaughter a fresh army of some ten thousand Turks from Alep.
This, together with a tendency to portray characters in black and white ("arch-villains" or "goodies"), is something that the author may want to try to address in his future instalment, to the extent that it would significantly add to the story's credibility. For instance, the rivalry between the Diogenai and the Doukai was a struggle between two powerful noble clans and their supporters, and Romanus Diogenai, who appears, at times, as some kind of paragon of military virtue was probably no angel and more likely to have been just as ambitious and power-hungry as any of the Doukai, rather than being only driven by the good of the Empire...
The tone of the book is set from the start. Words that come to mind are Dark, Revenge & War
Apion and Nasir are looked in what looks like a never ending war between their opposing armies and from the start of the book you can tell Apion is currently on the losing side.. the borderlands of the empire look set to fall.. the Haga and his loyal men including my favourites from the previous book Sha, Blastares and Procopius stand in the way of the Seljuk army.
After a lot of bloodshed we see Apion summoned to Constantinople where we are introduced to a lot of new characters. The one I found interested me the most was Dederic a fellow solider, his character gains depth throughout the book, I love Apion don’t get me wrong but I absolutely loved Dederic.
The plot of the book surpassed any expectations I had. There’s so much crammed in to the book its crazy but nothing feels rushed or misplaced.
Now Apion along with his men are tasked to head into Syria and take the war to the Seljuks..and Nasir.
I don’t want to give away anything but Gordon manages to bring some conclusion to the whole Apion/Nasir revenge storyline while also leaving you on tenterhooks as to what will happen next. There are some big surprises in store for you lucky readers.
The author clearly knows his stuff, he fills you with so much background information throughout the book but I never felt bogged down.
If I was to think of anything I didn’t like it would only be that Sha, Blastares and Procopius don’t play as big a part in this book as I would have liked but saying that once you read the story you can tell why.. Gordon weaved such a good tale that these guys needed to take a step back in order to see the story develop.
This is such a good book and I can’t wait to get time to read the 3rd book! I highly recommend to check out Gordon’s work.
Gordon has quickly became a favorite author of mine and i'm excited to see what lies ahead
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