A veteran of Victorian intrigue (Execution Dock, 2009, etc.) trains her sights on the late 13th century, when the powerful of Rome and Byzantium were just as unscrupulous and prone to violence.
Anna Zarides’ brother Justinian has been pronounced guilty of murdering Bessarion Comnenos, who bitterly opposed the empire’s union with Rome. Anna comes to Constantinople hoping to find evidence that will vindicate her twin, now exiled to Judea, and she protects herself in the vast, strange city by assuming the disguise of a eunuch. As the physician Anastasius Zarides, she steadily builds a thriving practice, assisted in large part by the support of Bessarion’s magnetic, monstrous mother-in-law, Zoe Chrysaphes, whose “supreme skill” is poisoning her enemies by inventive means that anticipate Lucrezia Borgia. But for all her success in attracting patients and keeping her gender secret—even from Captain Giuliano Dandolo, the attractive Venetian aristocrat who soon wins her heart—Anna is agonizingly slow in working her way into the confidence of Bishop Constantine, Justinian’s patron, who hides a thousand secrets. History, meanwhile, is moving far more rapidly than Anna. A series of revolving-door popes seek a rapprochement between East and West that amounts to a subjection of the Orthodox Church even as Charles of Anjou, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, works tirelessly to promote another crusade against Byzantium. Perry, who’s chosen her period (1273–82) with a canny eye for drama, makes this complex historical background both vivid and clear without any grandstanding (apart from an ill-judged walk-on by ten-year-old Dante Alighieri). She’s less successful in creating characters capable of embodying both the salient historical conflicts and the illusion of independent lives of their own; they always behave exactly as you’d expect.
The history is consistently more surprising than the fiction in this grandly scaled epic of a turbulent period.