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on 21 July 2013
The previous volume did not really work for me, for quite a number of reasons. Although I still had a couple of major problems, I found "Rise of the Golden Heart" significantly better than the first episode, or perhaps simply more to my taste.
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...