This novel has an unusual setting – 12th-century Constantinople – which is not an era many readers like me will be too familiar with, perhaps. It certainly makes a pleasant change from all the Tudor novels that have swamped the market over the past years. The main character, Agnes of France, is sent at the age of 13 to Constantinople to wed the Emperor Alexios, as was the common fate of princesses throughout history. Sadly, he is a mummy’s boy dominated by his scheming and scary mother, and the marriage is less than successful. Agnes, now renamed Empress Anna, is a survivor, and she manages to face up to and deal with whatever is thrown at her (which is quite a bit).
The novel is fast-paced and gripping with a focus on the brutality and cruelty of life in these times. Life is precarious no matter who you are, and sometimes the most dangerous place to be is at the top. Agnes/Anna sees one main character murdered in front of her eyes, and the reader is also witness to another being literally torn to pieces by an angry mob. The verisimilitude adds grit to the other side of the novel, which is a love story. This element of the book is not much of a surprise, it has to be said, but I find this common with novels of this ilk. Maybe sometimes characters (and people) are just destined for each other? Some of the events can be quite hard to believe, but in fact these are the historically accurate ones. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.
Clothier has written one previous novel, The Girl King, set in Georgia at a similar time period, and it is very refreshing to have novels set in such different places. Recommended.