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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Walls of Byzantium: The Mistra Chronicles 1" by James Heneage (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"Set in the last decade of the fourteenth century, WALLS OF BYZANTIUM, opens as the Ottoman Turk, Sultan Bayezid, prepares his final assault on the Byzantine Empire. Only the little Despotate of Mistra in the Greek Peleponnese stands between him and his ultimate prize - Constantinople.

Four young people are drawn into this turbulent world. Anna Laskaris is the feisty daughter of the most noble family in Mistra. She has been betrothed in a political alliance to Damian Mamonas, but loves another: Luke Margoris, a Varangian guardsman whose ancestors, centuries before, hid a secret which has the power to unite the Christian world in its hour of need. Damian’s twin sister, Zoe, who is as cunning as she is beautiful, denied the Mamonas inheritance which she feels is hers, also sets out to find the Varangian treasure with, or without, Luke.

As events unfold and the kings of Christendom are persuaded to send the biggest crusade yet to the rescue of Byzantium, Luke finds that his destiny draws him east, away from Anna, to face a threat even more terrifying than Bayezid: the Mongol Horde under the merciless leadership of the murderous Tamerlane.

From Constantinople and Chios to Venice and Samarcand, WALLS OF BYZANTIUM, is an epic novel which brings to dramatic life the battles in the final years of Byzantium in a story of love and honour in a time of colliding empires."

Reading the first 100 pages of Walls of Byzantium can make one believe we are in a standard epic fantasy series first volume that just happens to be set in our history, while having hints of possible magic too: destined boy, doomed love (maybe?), straight-out villains and heroes (again who knows...), hidden magic treasure that may save (or doom) an empire if found, and a writing style that occasionally borders on bestseller blandness and predictability, 

All this balanced against very interesting content and on my first reading, I kind of thought "not again, promising stuff done in a mediocre at best way" and skipped through the book and read here and there and the end.

And guess what, once
I got familiar with the author style, I was hooked and let the characters take over, so much so that this novel went straight to my top 10 for the year and with a good chance to stay there.

And yes everything said in the first lines is still true, but there is something so compelling about our heroes and more generally the whole storyline/world building that makes all above negatives irrelevant, while the book truly "lives" in a way that books maybe written with better style and more sophisticated characters do not:

The naive to start Luke Magoris, grandson of a disgraced Varangian guard from Constantinople whose father had to take service with arch-villain, traitor, greedy etc etc Archon of Momenvasia and who grew up with their twins - spineless coward but heir-by-gender Damian and the willful, wanton, scheming Zoe who badly wants power and tries to prove that her being born a girl is just an accident she can correct, while of course as the novel progresses, Luke turns to be a prince, or at least the descendant of such...

Anna, another naive heroine this time, daughter of the right hand of the Despot of Mistra - to whom the Archon owes allegiance in theory, but in practice he sells his services to whomever offers him the "best deal" and the Ottomans and the Venetians are now the rich kids on the block, the latter from their spoils of their traitorous Sack of Byzantium two centuries back, while the former the new power which of course wants Byzantium and everything; Luke is the "man of her life" but she is married to another - Damian the coward perv - and courted by someone even more powerful - Suleyman, heir of famous Bayezid, lover of Zoe and all around schemer and lover of women, wine and pleasure - etc etc...

Finally there is Zoe, another great character whom one loves to hate and then of course the assorted cast of villains, heroes and wise men both Christian and Muslim as only the Venetians are uniform villains so far, not to speak of a great ending that truly begs the continuation asap.

Overall, Walls of Byzantium is a great saga beginning and an entertaining page turner which offers everything one wants in such - dramatic sieges, false accusations, magic treasure, enchanted sword, traitorous murders, intrigue, romance, overview of the state of knowledge of the day, battles and the bloody executions after Nicopolis, awesome world building and narrative power that makes one turn the pages, root for the heroes and get immersed in a novel that is grounded in history but reads more like fantasy than anything else.


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