A passable imagining of the eighth-century Byzantium, where intransigent Muslims lurked at the outer gates, and sinister doings within the walls kept things interesting.
Spector’s hero is Count Nicetas Beser, Emperor Constantine V’s adviser and confidant, who introduces himself at the beginning of the novel as â€œa 98-year-old living relic” keeping himself healthy, wealthy and wise by exercising, eating right and practicing the â€œsecret stroking of my closet herm,” a fertility statue which he lovingly describes. The herm figures here and there, but less so than the testicles of various tough, martial men–attention to such things was apparently pronounced in days of old, if one can gauge by the frequent references herein (â€œLeo, we heard you have three balls”). Though too given to textbook-ish exposition, Spector unfolds a nicely complex tale of partisan politics, skullduggery and epic warfare punctuated by the occasional anachronism and Star Trek moment (â€œI’m a physician, not an investigator”). On that note, verisimilitude is sometimes markedly lacking–for example, the ancients may have written confidential memos, but they probably didn’t carry the interoffice â€œTo” and â€œFrom” headings of today. Despite that, Beser wouldn’t be unfitting company for real historical Roman figures, such as the famed military general Count Belisarius, a similarly stalwart character. It is clear that Spector has done his homework, and most of the details of Byzantine life ring true. His take on the religious controversies of the time is also instructive: it is easy to forget that the Byzantines, revered now for their brilliant art, were a superstitious lot given to â€œserious icon pollution and relic mania.” Though these characters are, on the whole, less bloodthirsty than those found in historical accounts, Spector paints a believable portrait of life behind Constantinople’s thick stone walls.
A solid effort, despite moments of implausibility.