Storm’s dazzlingly researched evocation of the Constantinople of Justinian and Theodora, the first in a proposed series, struggles to find a dramatically satisfying role for its young hero.
In 514 CE, a few years before the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, Valentinian Scipio Constans is born in the sleepy Greek fishing village of Volerus. His father is a humble rope maker, and his mother has died while giving birth. Nonetheless, it seems Valentinian has been marked for greatness, and his father enlists tutors to teach the boy everything from soldiering to philosophy. Valentinian is secretly descended from a noble Roman lineage. Centuries before, Scipio Africanus (foe of Hannibal and subjugator of Carthage) fathered an illegitimate child who was Valentinian's ancestor on his mother’s side. After telling his son of his heritage, Valentinian's father sends him to make a name for himself in Constantinople. Luckily, his tutor Leo is a friend of General Belisarius’ soon-to-be sister-in-law, a connection that quickly places Valentinian in the company of the illustrious. During this middle portion of the novel, Constantinople is described, and its history relayed, through characters’ conversations and storytelling, and the narrative momentum noticeably slackens. When the Nika riots break out during Belisarius’ wedding dinner, the story finds its pacing again as Valentinian plays a role in helping the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church escape an angry mob. Storm relates a thorough history of these riots, which nearly brought Justinian’s reign to a premature end, complete with the maneuverings of the Senate and the Imperial court. Storm uses muscular prose to pack these passages with his digested research, and they are both immediate and instructive. From a dramatic standpoint, however, the main character has little more than a peripheral role in the key events, leading to an abundance of scenes that are interesting without being exciting. Promisingly for future volumes, by novels’ end Valentinian is well placed to be on the frontlines of Justinian and Belisarius’ campaigns to reconquer the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire.
A historical novel richly detailed enough that it manages to be engrossing even though its hero is frequently just an observer of events.