Harris’s debut, a highly mobile but underdeveloped tale from the seventh century, features a homosexual monk from Tarsus who spends much of his life mulling over the nature of lust and the fine points of theology, and who later becomes the Archbishop of Canterbury.
When his parents are killed as heretics, Theodore is turned over to a monastery. At 16, however, he’s sent packing and after spending several years under the tutelage of a hermit philosopher, he joins the ranks of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius’s army as a clerk. Here he’s discovered by the Emperor’s chaplain, who uses him to help prepare an epic poem celebrating Heraclius’s exploits as he subdues the Persians and Arabs, but as years pass the campaign comes to an inconclusive end. Theodore returns with the Emperor to Constantinople as his historian, only to have the melancholic Heraclius die before the work is complete; with the matter of succession much disputed, Theodore must flee the palace intrigue that follows. A stint as a teacher of Greek in an Italian monastery brings him face to face with that which he has so longed for and feared: a handsome, studious young monk from Africa named Hadrian. Although their love of learning soon surpasses their physical passion, fate allows them to remain together when Hadrian suggests Theodore to the Pope as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and accompanies him to England. Under Theodore, the chaos of the Church in England is greatly subdued, although not without considerable bloodshed as aristocratic and ecclesiastic contenders vie for power over the years.
The charms of this account reside in the vivid background details and Theodore’s musings, but these can’t overcome some parchment-thin characters and a dearth of drama.