Review Walls of Byzantium

This book has been lying on my desk for quite some time. I received it some time ago, and I was planning to do something with it in relation to our 2014 Special on the fall of Constantinople. In the end, I decided not to do so, simply because, while there are a number of links between the two, the fall itself isn’t mentioned. So I put it aside to write a review about later; this took me longer than I would have liked, but on the other hand, there were more important things I had to do – like making a Special – so I have some excuse.

Contrary to what the title suggests, ‘The Walls of Byzantium’, written by James Heneage,  is not a book about the actual walls of the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. In fact, even though the walls do play some part in the story, you’ll ‘see’ only very little of it. More importantly, we are dealing with a work of fiction, a historical novel set against the background of the conflict between the dwindling Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Turks, with important roles played by Venetians, Genoans, Hungarians, among others.

The novel is the first book of a series, with (I believe) 2 more books to follow. This means that the first installment needs to be captivating enough for a reader to start on book 2, while making sure not to finish the storyline too close to the climax of the narrative. I must admit that, while the historical context is indeed exciting, I cannot say the same about the narrative itself. Let me explain while we walk a bit through the story (without giving away too much, I hope)

As said, the story is set around the end of the fourteenth century, when the Byzantine Empire was already in great decline, only a shadow of its former glory. In the introduction of this book, which focuses on the real start of that decline, the fall of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, Heneage brings forth a secret, something powerful which could potentially save Constantinople and/or the Byzantines from destruction. This secret seems to have been intended as a sort of grail-like item which will inspire heroes to start adventurous quests throughout a militarily turbulent Mediterranean, and it was with this perspective that I decided to finish reading the book. In case you are wondering, it becomes quickly apparent that the secret is not gunpowder, so all the more reason for me to continue reading.

After this intro, the story jumps forward in time, to the Spring of1392 , introducing the hero of the story, Luke Magoris, whose father is a (former) Varangian Guard serving the Byzantine rulers at the city of Monemvasia in Greece. Let’s put that into perspective: at that moment, the Ottoman Turks have already conquered almost of all what was left of East Roman Turkey, as well as most of the Byzantine territories in the Balkans, including Adrianopolis, turning the latter into their new European capital of Edirne. Moreover, by that time, they have already defeated several armies, including a huge Christian force at Kosovo in 1389. Byzantium only holds on to parts of Greece, a few islands and Constantinople itself. We know from the history books that the Ottoman Empire will became even more powerful in the fifteenth century, and that city of Constantinople itself will fall in about 61 years at the hands of Sultan Mehmed II. I must say that the author skillfully uses this knowledge to create a feeling of impending doom. Aside from the all-powerful secret discussed just now, this was what kept me reading. Luke and his allies are all well-versed in history, and well aware of what would be lost if the Byzantine Empire would fall, a moment which seems only a few years away at the start of the book (it might have been better to have read the story without knowing the history behind it, but I would be a poor editor of a magazine about medieval military history if this was the case). Of course, the readers of Medieval Warfare know that the final stroke is still quite some time off, but even despite this knowledge, Heneage still manages to create an atmosphere in which you get the feeling that things could go horribly wrong real fast.

This accompishment is despite (not because of) the hero’s character, Luke, who is portrayed as an annoying epitome of the ‘Good guy’. He’s tough, intelligent, wise, kind, loyal, loveable, and who knows what; because of this stereotyping, he is also one of the least interesting characters in the book. You get the feeling that Luke can do anything; he’ll never be killed, nor be corrupted by any ‘evil’ around him. This also means that there is rather limited suspense in the book; after all, Luke will never come to harm, not really, and it’s not as if there is any risk of him being turned against his loved ones. The same applies (to a lesser degree) to many other main characters as well.

Of course, the violent historical setting partially makes up for this lack of suspense. Heneage manages to interweave actual history throughout his main story, and it is often refreshing to find out that some room has been reserved for the ‘facts’. The main players in the game of power, the Ottomans, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoans, Hungarians, Serbians, and several others, are all properly introduced but without getting into too much detail so as to turn it into a history lesson. The state of events in 1392 seems to be correct, for the most part at least, and the same goes for what happens after, at least regarding the major events. Thus, we’ll read about the Battle of Nicopolis, the rise of Timur and his rapid conquests in the East, the power struggles within the Ottoman court and the attempts of the Byzantine rulers (including the emperor) to take sides and manipulate rivals and allies. It’s somewhat disappointing to find out that Heneage turns Luke into a major participant at the battle at Nicopolis as well, but I can imagine that it would be difficult to combine a detailed account of the battle (which does have some similarities with what actually happened) without letting his hero participate in it (and, taking into account the outcome of the battle, without killing him off). Some historical notes are provided at the end of the novel, allowing a reader to check where the story corresponds to (and deviates from) the history behind it.

Moreover, Heneage tries to offer a somewhat objective and nuanced perspective on the sides involved; there are protagonists within the Ottoman camp as well, just as there are several Christian ‘bad guys’, with the Venetians being the most clearly vilified nation. On the other hand, Heneage’s cast is still full of stereotypes and I could not avoid some disappointment about having to read yet another fairly basic ‘bad Muslim/corrupt merchant/ruler vs. good Christian’-narrative. Since Luke is Byzantine, and since the Byzantines are threatened by the Ottomans, one cannot avoid routing against the Ottomans in general, and Murad I and Bayezid in particular, with the former being portrayed as truly brutal and unscrupulous but calculating Ottoman ruler. Heneage has clearly adopted a rather pro-Genoa and anti-Venice stance, while both nations each had their strengths and flaws at the time; the Byzantine emperor seems to be a kind and pious figurehead of an everlasting Roman Empire (while the importance of its continued existence is never doubted for a second); Murad and Bayezid are smart but cruel and sly, while their opponents in the Ottoman court all seem to be wise and just; the renaissance is portrayed as the epitome of European high culture, its significance is taken for granted; Sigismund of Hungary, during the Battle of Nicopolis, comes to the fore as the wise leader of the Christian nations, but one who is out-shouted by his hot-headed and proud Christian allies from the west (most notably the French nobles). While I cannot deny that there some of this info is indeed corrobarated in the sources, it’s unfortunate that Heneage capitalizes on these images to create a classic conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. There certainly are some ‘grey’ characters, but not enough to compensate his blacks and whites.

Heneage’s decision to place the story within the Mediterranean area at the end of the fourteenth century was a good one, as the history of the period grants an author many violent events and changes of fortunes in a relatively short amount of time, thus providing him with a stage all set for his narrative. The hero Luke converses with emperors and sultans during negotiations which did take place, fights in historical major battles, and travels to many different places, each with their own part to play in history. Adding an undefined secret adds a bit of fiction, perhaps, but despite the introduction, this secret remains fairly unimportant throughout this first book. Being historical fiction, however, the book suffers from an inevitable slow pace of history. In real life, major events do not follow each other within a few days or weeks. Thus, the first part of Heneage’s book is rather slow. Granted, it allows Heneage to properly introduce his main characters and some love stories. However, when his main characters split ways, the pace suddenly seems to change depending on Luke’s location, which, while understandable, doesn’t improve the story. Moreover, because of the lack of some truly creative characters (I found the classic wise Greek philosopher Plethon particularly annoying), and partially because you’ll know that those main characters will probably make it until the final chapter anyway, it is hard to really care about what happens to most of them, especially when sidelines are cut short just when the amount of time spent in a certain location seems to imply that it must be more important to the overall story than it really is. Regarding the latter, I admit that these sidebars may still prove to be of relevance later on, but since part 2 isn’t available yet, all I can do now is base my comments on this first part. Of course, knowing the fate of most historical figures doesn’t really help either, but we can hardly blame Heneage for that.

To summarize, ‘The Walls of Byzantium’ is successful in offering some insight into the turbulent period of the late fourteenth century, despite its narrative. By letting the reader see through the eyes of a Byzantine Christian, Heneage manages to create a sense of impending doom caused by the rise of an almost unstoppable Muslim power.  While this method, along with the author’s decision to turn it into a somewhat classic good-vs-evil narrative, cannot avoid stereotyping, the author at least provides a story which tries to look at the events from more than an exclusively Christian point of view, and he has gone to some lengths to safeguard the history behind his narrative. However, this often allows for a somewhat unpleasant combination of sluggish storylines connected through fast-forwarding on to the next episode. Combined with several stereotypical (and somewhat boring) characters, this makes it the narrative behind it a lot less interesting than it could have been. Then again, this is partially compensated by the historical component of the story. In other words, for those of you interested in the period, this might be a fun read, though there are still historical inaccuracies you’ll have to ignore from time to time (no matter Heneage’s accomplishments, it’s still a novel). It’s a nice book for when you’re commuting to work and you have nothing better to do. But if you are looking for a captivating story of loss and despair, or an epic account of battles in the medieval world, then I can only suggest you look elsewhere. That said, let’s not jump to conclusions; there is always a chance that part 2 and 3 will prove me wrong on the long run.

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