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Didn't quite work for me...
on 19 February 2014
I hate to "spoil the party" but, unlike the other reviews, this one will not be entirely favourable. This is because I had problems with the way the author presented the historical context, with the plot and with some of the characters in this novel.
To start with the positive elements, the topic is somewhat original. There are already a number of novels on the final siege and fall of Constantinople. However, this seems to be the first series covering the last years of the 14th and first years of the 15th century, or at least the first one that I have come across. The Crusade that was destroyed by the Turks at the battle of Nicopolis (in 1396) and the crushing defeat of the same Ottomans at the hand of Tamerlane (Ankara in 1402) essentially offered the moribund Byzantine Empire a lease of another half century, especially since the Ottoman Empire was raked by civil war after the disaster of Ankara.
This book focuses on the declining Byzantine Empire which was a shadow of its former self. The term "Empire" had largely become a misnomer for what had become a state paying tribute to the expanding Ottomans. This "decline and fall" from former splendour and glory is something that the author shows rather well, with the Emperor and the scattered remains of the Empire, including the Despotate of Mistra, remaining precariously autonomous.
In his historical note, the author explains that Sultan Bayezid "had to conquer the Byzantine Empire and, in particular, the city of Constantinople" allegedly because "the Gates of Byzantium were the Gates into Europe." This rather lyrical presentation does not, unfortunately, present the real reasons for taking control of Constantinople. First of all, by the time of the battle of Nicopolis, the Ottomans had been in Europe for almost half a century during which they had conquered most of actual Bulgaria, Northern Greece and modern Macedonia and Serbia. None of these conquests had been easy. Some were very recent and the result of the battle of Kossovo (1389) and many of the new vassals were restless. The point here is that the Ottomans hold on the Balkans was relatively recent and much more precarious than the book makes it out to be. A similar comment can be made for their hold on Asia Minor, where a similar situation prevailed and where the subjection of other powerful Turcoman tribes and warlords was either recent or incomplete (as shown in the book).
Second, the Ottoman Sultanate straddled the Balkans and Asia Minor, and had been expanding towards both the west AND the east, something that is also shown rather well in the book when the various Ottoman commanders and Princes enter into disputes about strategy. This, by the way, was the same kind of typical dilemma that the Eastern Roman Empire and then the Byzantine Empire had been confronted with: the need to decide on which front they were going to fight, since they could not campaign on both fronts simultaneously. Control of Constantinople would ease communications between the two halves of the growing Ottoman Empire, so that the city was perhaps the "Gates of Europe" but it was also "the Gates to Asia Minor". Moreover, it was held by a Christian State that had formerly ruled over all of the territories currently under Ottoman control, was the successor of the Roman Empire and which could hope to obtain the military and religious help of Christian States, possibly even massive help through a Crusade.
Third, Christian help could come both by land, as happened with the Crusading forces that were crushed at Nicopolis, but also by sea, and this is where control of seaports in general (including Momemvasia) and of Constantinople in particular, could become important. Ottoman dominance was also threatened by the string of victories of Timur Leng (whom we know as Tamerlane) and the destabilising potential that this could have on the Ottoman vassals in Asia Minor.
The author also mentions four Empires - Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and "Mongol" (more accurately the Turco-Mongol Empire of Tamerlane). Apart from the fact that there were a number of other rather significant players (the Kingdom of Hungary and the Golden Horde on the Ukrainian steppes, for instance), neither the Byzantines nor the Venetians could even hope to match the Ottomans on their own. The former were rather well aware of it after being beaten just about each time they had tried to face the Ottomans in the field from the beginning of the 1'th century onwards (and with the exception of the Catalan Company episode). The later were more concerned with their secular rivalry against Genoa, where they were gaining the upper hand, and tended to believe, in a perhaps rather delusional way, that they could strike mutually beneficial deals with the Ottomans. So, in reality, there were only two empires that really mattered, not four.
Then there are some issues with the plot and the characters. The story begins in 1204 with a handful of Varangian Guards, including their leader, being tasked by the last Emperor of Constantinople with a crucial and very secret mission of preserving some precious item and hiding it overseas for future use. Needless to say, this item, which you never get to know about, can change the world. Almost two centuries later, their four descendants (and their four sons) are still styling themselves as Varangians and living in Momemvasia (why they are living in Momemvasia and serving its lord and not in Mistra, the capital of the Despotate is not explained). It is rather difficult to believe that these "Varangian traditions" (which are also left unexplained) would have been kept intact for so long, to put it mildly. This is especially the case since the Varangian Guards in Constantinople are only mentioned a handful of times during the 14th century and seem to have been replaced by other newly formed Guard units, especially from the mid-fourteenth century onwards.
One of these four sons - Luke Magoris (who seems to bear Greek names and neither Anglo-Saxon nor Scandinavian names, despite his alleged heritage) - is our hero, but a somewhat ineffective and feeble one with whom I did not manage to empathise. He keeps getting captured (three times) and bashed about every time he sets of to do something. He also keeps getting used and manipulated by others, both "goodies" and "baddies" alike. Then there are two noble born young Byzantine ladies. One is Anna Lascaris, the last descendant of an old Byzantine family and the relatively strong-willed sweetheart of our feeble hero. The second is Zoe Mamonas, the daughter of the scheming lord of Monemvasia, who is just as scheming as her father, at least as intelligent and deceptive as he is, but can never hope to be his heir and inherit from him because she is a girl. Finally, there is the historical character of Prince Sulayman, Sultan Bayezit's eldest son, who is cast as the arch-villain of the novel in a way that makes him into a bit of a caricature, at times.
Some of the secondary characters are perhaps more interesting, especially the historical ones, such as Plethon, a philosopher who is here also a diplomat and something of a (not so) secret agent.
I was not very much impressed by the "Holy Quest" piece whereby our hero seeks to find the mysterious and very secret treasure that everyone - starting with the Ottomans and the Venetians - seems to have heard about. However, the descriptions of "colonial" Genoese rule and economic exploitation of Chios and their trade in mastic and alum were rather interesting.
Perhaps the best part of the book was the section dealing with the battle of Nicopolis, which is reconstructing faithfully from the sources, apart, perhaps, from the vexed question of numbers of both sides where the accounts somewhat conflict. Heneage clearly shows that the behaviour of the Franco-Burgundians with regards to what we would now call "civilians" was rather appalling, just like it had been during previous Crusades (starting with the First one) with a level of arrogance that bordered stupidity. He also shows to what extent they lost the battle, as opposed to the Ottomans winning it. Despite not waiting for the Hungarians to engage the enemy and falling into just about all the traps that the Turks had laid out for them, the casualties that they inflicted on the Ottomans were nevertheless grievous. Further casualties were inflicted on them when they attacked the Hungarians who fought desperately and held out as long as they could on their own. So while the battle was indeed a huge and utterly avoidable disaster for the Christians, it also resulted in large and often unmentioned losses for the Ottomans, with these losses largely explaining why they decided not to resume the siege of Constantinople afterwards.