by MJ Burr
The history of the Byzantine Empire in the second half of the eleventh century is one of remarkable complexity, with military threats from outside, intrigues from inside, religious schism, and a succession of often incompetent rulers.
In this novel the author traces some of those events as seen through the eyes of the two major protagonists, Ranulf de Lannion (‘The Scraeling’) and his younger kinsman, Osmund Pendasson. Both are part-Breton in ancestry, but they are closely linked in other ways as well, particularly through association with Vikings and Anglo-Saxons. While these two characters are fictional, most of the other characters in the novel are historical.
The wider view (elaborated in the two earlier books in the series) takes in the Viking incursions into southern and eastern Europe, and in this book particularly, the ways in which the Varangers (Vikings) from the state of Kievan Rus (ruled by the Vikings and their descendants since 882) influenced events in Constantinople. The Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguards of the Emperor, are especially significant here.
The action in the book takes place during the reign of the young Byzantine emperor, Michael VII, who is well-meaning but is much more of a scholar than a natural ruler. The major villain of the piece is Michael’s first minister, the devious and clever eunuch Nikephorites, who schemes to put his nephew on the Imperial throne. These characters, and other historical figures such as the honourable though arrogant Alexios Comnenos, Eudokia, mother of Michael VII, and Zoe, Michael’s sister, are imaginatively and convincingly drawn.
Battles (against the Seljuk Turks and the Wallachians, amongst others) are vividly described, using both the colourful language of the soldiers and summaries in the form of the Scraeling’s ‘chronicles’. Against this background two love stories, involving Ranulf and Eudokia and Osmund and Zoe, add another and interesting dimension to the story, particularly as both women are portrayed as strong characters in their own right, with their own ambitions and secrets.
A particular feature of the plot is the way the author plays out the different intentions of the commanders and men in the field fighting to save the empire, and some of the key figures who engage in treacherous plots behind the walls of the city. In the second half of the book the focus switches dramatically from one scene of action to the other then back again. It becomes very involving indeed and the suspense is built up with great skill.
This is a very entertaining book, not least because the reader is given an insight into the kind of forces that were vastly influential in shaping the politics and culture of today’s eastern Europe and Asia Minor. It is also, along with the other two books in the series, a reminder of the remarkably widespread influence of the Scandinavians (and, the author suggests, possibly also Anglo Saxons after the Norman invasion of Britain) who ranged south and east from their homes in the north, particularly between 800 and 1100 CE.
More importantly still, it is entertaining because it has a cast of well-drawn characters and a clever plot that hustles the story along with ever-increasing tension.
Author: MJ Burr
Publisher: Cliowrite Ltd
RRP: Amazon paperback $US14.99; Kindle $US4.71; Direct from publisher $NZ25.00 p&p inc.
Available: Amazon print and Kindle formats; or from Cliowrite Ltd, 36 Wairau Road; Oakura; Taranaki; NZ 4314