The Lion of Mistra

Written by James Heneage
Review by Lynn Guest

By the early 15th century, Constantinople and Mistra in the Morea are the last relics of a Byzantine Empire now threatened by the Turks from the East and Venice from the West. Luke Magoris, Protostrator of Mistra, believes he can save the Empire if he can raise money to construct walls and build a navy. To find gold he must embark on a banking scheme with the shifty Medici and also compete with Venice for trade. He must make alliances with mysterious China, unreliable Egypt and with wild Sahara tribes. Who can he trust? Who can he outwit?

This is the third of the Empire Trilogy. Because Heneage launches into his story without a list of characters or any background information, the first 60 pages are bewildering. But once settled in, he skilfully gives us a fascinating picture of this volatile period. The world’s great Empires are battling for dominance, and yet each is threatened from within. Turk fights Turk and Islam is split by fanatical reformers; the Ming Emperor must control his conservative Mandarins; Jan Hus preaches a Protestant reformation that disrupts Catholic Europe; Italian city states plot against each other; and adventurous Portugal encroaches on Venice’s trading monopoly. This sweep of political, religious and economic turmoil is set against a colourful picture of medieval cities and life. Especially marvellous is Luke’s journey from Ethiopia across the Sahara to Mali.

If the characters are, frankly, two-dimensional and unengaging, a pacy, unpredictable plot should keep the reader hooked. This is a novel by an accomplished storyteller presenting a vivid and comprehensible portrait of a complex world in flux. Once the action gets going, the novel is impossible to put down.