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Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Escape From Byzantium" by Mark Mellon (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Mark Mellon Website
Order "Escape From Byzantium" HERE

INTRODUCTION: As with various recent other books like "Filaria" (Rv) or "The Choir Boats" (Rv), this one is a small press (short) novel that came to my attention through a review inquiry on our site. The premise seemed interesting and I requested a pdf review copy which on a quick browse went high on my large "to read pile".

While the beginning is fairly conventional except for some naming conventions that attracted my attention from the first pages, the novel slowly takes flight and becomes an impossible to put down page turner, so much so that I needed one re-read to savor it at length since on first read I was so eager to find out what happens that I read it very fast. A picaresque - though quite grim in places - caper in a crazy society, "Escape From Byzantium" is a short novel gem which I strongly hope will find as wide an audience as it deserves.

For experienced sff readers, the one major publisher novel I read this year that I would compare "Escape From Byzantium" with, is "Retribution Falls" (Rv) by Chris Wooding in zany non-stop action old style but written with modern sensibilities. It even has airships, though here with the story taking place in a slightly twisted version of our world Russia around the early 1900's, they are zeppelins...

I would also add that while short as pages go at about 150 including a glossary and some cool pictures of the main characters, "Escape From Byzantium" has the full narrative punch of a novel so I call it such rather than a novella.

Zoorland, the mad country that is the setting of this short novel is in the midst of brutal change. A version of the early 20th century Russia but with a fanatical church of Thanatos and a competent but disconnected modernizer Emperor Zog Maximov who is overthrown and killed with his family in a grass roots "red" religious uprising by the Ulema led by Basileus Ulyanov (!) under the aegis of senile patriarch Smert.

However the rich Western businessmen who lost the lucrative mineral rights contracts bankroll the "white" royalist army led by competent General Kranski which is better equipped and led than the Holy Revolutionary Army of Zoorland (HARZ) and steadily advances towards the capital Byzantium, using its long range zeppelins for unexpected strikes.

Our hero, Simon
Rosencreuntz, a young graduate of the elite Byzantium military school with a strong engineering talent has been railroaded by the Revolution and as with many officers of the Imperial Army, he has spent several years imprisoned, beaten, tortured and later in labor camps on the brink of summary execution.

However the desperation of the Ulema in face of the "white" assault brings the formation of "penal battalions" led by former officers and we first meet Captain Rosencreuntz supervising a bridge demolition in face of relentless enemy attack, when he is arrested by religious commissary aka "Hojatoleslam" Nikita, beaten and thrown in a car trunk to be led to Ayatollah Commissar Barko for summary judgment.

However Simon has actually been promoted to Colonel and recalled to the capital to help with siege preparation since the new CO of the Byzantium Garrison and most powerful HARZ officer is General Reinhard Heydrich (!) von Goeltze, a brilliant but dissolute noble and former tormentor of Simon in military school, later expelled for misconduct and rumored to be a "pimp and gigolo" in the West...

Of course Simon's new position does not come for free so to speak, as Goeltzee's adjutant Rupert von Henzau and later the "man himself" plainly show him, while the powerful leaders of the Ulema, Ulyanov and Vyacheslav (a Trotsky look-alike) take a personal interest in him too.

Simon wants only to forget the horrors of the last two years of his life and makes friends in drink and debauchery with famous "brutalist" poet Kokoshka who is a tolerated leader of Zoorland intelligentsia. And there is romance too with "brutalist" poet and "femme fatale" Tatanya Baratskaya and "naive believer" ensign Euzhenie Makarova. Until Simon has to decide where to chance his destiny, or maybe until events will decide for him...

From the description above you will get a clear picture of the book's flavor, but it's hard to describe the powerful irony, black humor and non-stop action and intrigue that made "Escape from Byzantium" such a favorite of mine. Though brutal and with the typical elite snobbery of his former position, Simon grows on the reader and he slowly becomes a "true hero" you want to root for, especially in the context of the all-
around madness.

The characters of Goeltze, Hentzau and Ulyanov are pitch perfect, but Kokoshka steals the show after a while, the "brutalist" poet who finds refuge in drink, weird underground shows and art that "needs to have an obvious flaw" being a superb counterpart to the earnest Simon.

The only thing that jarred a bit was the "old-boy" form of address between various characters which I felt was out of place in the setting, being more appropriate in an English upper class establishment than in a Russian one, but that was a small niggle considering how superb the short novel is.

Highly, highly recommended and a big positive surprise for me!

As a bonus extra I will present Mihir's short take on the book too since he was very interested in and he read it quite fast too.

Mihir's take: “Escape form Byzantium” is a novella from Mark Mellon. The story blurb tells the reader that it’s an escape story, but what it also doesn’t mention there’s a lot more going on in this 148 paged piece than just a simple escape story.

The whereabouts of the country of Zoorland wherein the tale is set in, is not given, however remarks are made as to how it is an enclosed country and has had religious incursions from Islam & Christianity which has lead to the advent of the Thanatite religion which is the dominant political and spiritual force in the Zoorlander nation.

The history of the nation has been strife with a revolution which has brought it grief and infighting which continues to this day. All of this is nicely introduced to the reader in the prologue & then the author brings us to the opening chapter wherein we are introduced to the main character of Simon Rosencreutz.

The storyline picks up in the third person protagonist view as we are shown how Simon is saved from certain death & is reinstated in the capital as part of the new regime sponsored by the Thanatites. He’s even more surprised to find an ex-comrade of his leading the force. It’s from herein the author sets up all the plots and double dealings of the tale as the story is paced to its eventual end. Simon manages to reconnect with a couple of people from his past & learns a lot more about what is truly going on behind the miasma of religion & politics which take center stage in this story.

The climax was a bit unusual as the author has inserted a small twist in the story to undercut the reader’s expectation & then gives a resounding ending as well. The author has written a rather engaging story which will take the readers through the brutal world of Zoorland. The prose is admirable for a short story and the pseudo-historical feel is nicely permeated throughout the story. Overall this novella captivated me to find out what does happen to Simon in the end & it will be interesting to see what Mark dishes up in the future as well.



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