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on 19 March 2014
If you want action, adventure and history then The Walls of Byzantium is a book I would recommend for you. It moved along nicely and the characters become almost like friends near the end. You will find yourself caught up not only in the adventure but also in the historical fact as well. looking forward to reading the second instalment.
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on 27 September 2013
The Walls of Byzantium is an epic novel, the first of a new series, set at the end of the fourteenth century and mapping the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire. I don't know much about the period, but I was relieved to find that everything I need to know to grasp what's going on is provided in the text. There's an easy to read map at the start of the books but we are spared a glossary or distracting notes. James Heneage is a first class storyteller and he sweeps you along from page one, quietly adding to the reader's knowledge only when necessary.

I found this a hugely enjoyable novel set in a fascinating period. The plague had swept through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century wiping out a third of the population and ushered in a new age of fervent religious belief. Life expectancy was short and many of the new rulers and commanders were young, hot headed and spoiling for a fight. The aggressive empires of the East were approaching their zenith: the Ottomans and the Mongols were eager to sweep westwards and had the numbers and capability to overwhelm Europe and stop the flowering of the Renaissance in its tracks. The answer to why this didn't happen and how European civilization survived is the underlying theme of the novel.

The fate of all of the empires, both East and West, is told through the interconnecting lives of four main characters: Luke Magoris, a medieval horse whisperer whose growth and development seems to embody the glimmering light of the Renaissance; Anna Laskaris whose high birth finds her trapped in a nasty political marriage; Prince Suleyman, heir to the Sultanate and the novel's prime villain; and Zoe Mamonas, a schemer of Borgia-like proportions who remains engaging and sympathetic throughout. There are some memorable secondary characters, notably the philosopher Plethon who lights up the page and deserves a novel of his own.

The book is full of good things and can be read and enjoyed on many different levels. It opens as a bloody adventure, but soon pans out to map decline of the last vestiges of the Roman empire from a number of perspectives. Heneage is clearly a skilled historian who knows the period in depth and the book is packed with fascinating insights into the period from the effect of the Sultan's toothache on an Ottoman invasion of Europe to how the Venetians became powerbrokers and arms dealers.

The landscapes of the Mediterranean are richly evoked and lovingly described; reading about Mistra, Monemvasia and Chios has made me yearn to visit them someday. The flowers of Byzantine and Islamic culture existed side by side with utterly sadistic and barbarous behaviour. The Crusaders are shown to behave worse than the Ottomans in their treatment of the conquered and as much as the twentieth century this period is shown to be an age of extremes.

The story works well on a mythic dimension and it's clear from reading Heneage's descriptions of the sieges of Monemvasia and Constantinople that this must have been Tolkien's inspiration for the siege of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings. The narrative sweeps to a gripping finale: Heneage is in his element during the battle scenes and his the portrayal of the Battle of Nicopolis, is outstanding and astonishing, encompassing acute historical understanding with a narrative sweep of Tolstoyan grandeur.

Heneage knows how to please his readers, both those who know their history and those who don't. It will equally delight readers of Tom Holt and Bernard Cornwell and viewers of Game of Thrones and The Borgias. This is a big book full of unexpected delights and it's easy to be totally drawn into this world. Reading it has changed my perspective on the Dark Ages and I have begun to wonder if we have ever really come out of them. This is historical writing at its best created by a master storyteller who is also a wonderful and engaging historian. I can't wait for more.
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on 22 March 2014
This is one of the finest books I have read for a long time. I plan to re read it very soon as the details were so fascinating I don't believe I absorbed them all fully. I also can't wait to read the sequel. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the history of the 1300's and the way it shaped so much of later events. I can't wait to read thesequl, I'm writing it twice I know but that is how I feel.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 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.

Three stars.
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on 14 April 2015
Real romp of a historical fiction, an interesting debut from a new writer. I don’t think that Heneage is the finished article yet – his characters could do with a little more development – but the plot is a cracker. There are shades of Dan Brown and a touch of Bernard Cornwell – if you like either of those authors, it’s worth giving this a try.
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on 4 March 2014
An engrossing, amazingly well researched tale, which hardly give the reader time to breath.
The author can certainly weave a tale of so many twists turns and unexpected surprises. Five stars!
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With a writing style that is almost cinematic, James Heneage excels at recreating the sights and sounds of a long-distant period. Many historical novels take a while to get going, but 'The Walls of Byzantium' is gripping from the first page, plunging the reader right into the heart of the narrative. Apart from a prologue that is set in the early 13th century, the story takes place in the closing years of the 14th, when the Ottoman Turks were becoming a growing threat in the Balkans. The myriad of nationalities and religions in this novel can confusing - the region was even more complicated in the 14th century than it is today, which is saying something - but Heneage has a firm grip on his subject material and ensures that the narrative doesn't lose its momentum.

Some first-time authors fall into the trap of over-writing, particularly if their novel is set in a relatively unknown past, but James Heneage avoids these pitfalls, creating remarkably vivid scenes with a great economy of style. The author is clearly an expert on this period and has a passion for his subject, however I never felt as if I was being lectured.

Whether you're interested in the late Byzantine and Ottoman empires or not, this is a thoroughly engaging read, with well-drawn characters, a compelling plot and a great sense of place. I particularly enjoyed the topographical descriptions, whic were very evocative. The author has clearly either travelled extensively in the region or spent a long time looking at Google Earth.

Overall, a very impressive debut.
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on 19 August 2014
A fun romp based in the times of the crusades. A page turner and entertaining. Ideal holiday reading. I have downloaded the next installment but not read it yet, so must have liked it. Nicely written. Recommended.
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on 16 August 2013
While it was an enjoyable book, decently written with a good plot, there was something missing in the character development and the relationships amongst the characters. More time and nuance, to show rather than tell the reader how the characters were feeling and what they were thinking, would have elevated this book to four and a half or maybe even five stars, but, as it is, I feel four stars is actually a bit generous and three a bit low, so wish I could give it three and a half. To me, thoroughly-established characters and relationships are integral to good storytelling and I just felt the lack in this instance.

There were elements in The Walls of Byzantium that made me wonder if the author had read Dorothy Dunnett and it's possible that I was subconsciously comparing the two. (I would whole-heartedly recommend Dunnett's 'House of Niccolo' series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.) Given this, I'll round up my three and a half to four, rather than round down. I suppose it'a a bit harsh to compare a new novelist with an experienced author at the top of the genre.
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on 9 February 2015
This book is wonderful. I fell in love with the style, subject and genre almost instantly - and remained captivated throughout. One of the most exciting features of this is that we are to live with this history and (at least some of) these characters throughout an entire odyssey and this journey is only just starting. This more than compensated for a gentle slowing in pace (probably intentional) towards the end which only set up the explosive start of the second book (into which I am already completely immersed). This was a tour de force.
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