Baren’s (The Canary in the Mine, 2015, etc.) epic novel traces momentous events in imperial Byzantium.
It is the year 587 when young Romulus, seated in the Church of Saint Sophia, has visions of a soldier engaged in a fierce battle: “He sliced and cut furiously, his sword flashing crimson, against four enemy warriors clothed in dark rough animal hides.” The son of a successful weapon maker, Romulus shows great interest in military subjects as he goes about an education involving “physical exercise and in subjects such as Roman mythology, philosophy, the Roman classics and rhetoric.” Yet he’s coming of age in a time of unrest: “Too many things are not right....Too many....Disagreeable rumors from the army....Even worse corruption than usual in the Government’s Procurement Offices,” as one character remarks. (Readers familiar with the time period will know that Maurice, the emperor of Romulus’ youth, has a difficult, ill-fated rule.) As Romulus rises to prominence and attracts the attention of young women like Zenianthe, a girl who “blushed very prettily,” and Lydia, whose “splendid blue eyes were large and brilliant,” his future seems sure to be one of conflicts both physical and romantic. Readers are told in no uncertain terms that “Byzantium’s history was not without its lively moments,” and neither is this information-packed fictional account. It’s full of all the bloodshed one might expect from the time period, with violence including an unsuccessful bid of rioters who “screamed and shrieked as they struggled desperately against those pushing them into the Guards’ stabbing pikes.” Severed heads also make an appearance, and one emperor is said to show “a poorly-concealed deranged bloodlust at each successive murder.” Love interests tend to be clumsier, falling into melodrama, as when one young woman explains to her mother, “I love him, but I have such strong passions for him....Is this what it is to be in love?” Readers excited by the setting will nevertheless find themselves eager to see how Romulus fares in such a historically significant time.
A grand tale reminiscent of old Hollywood epics with their immense casts, dedicated heroes, and doe-eyed maidens.