The Walls of Byzantium

Written by James Heneage
Review by Mary Seeley

By 1392, the Byzantine Empire has been reduced to the city of Constantinople and the Peloponnese. There is talk of a mysterious treasure, rescued from Constantinople over a century before by the Emperor’s Varangian guards, which may yet save the last of the Empire from the Turks, but no-one knows what it actually is, and even 16-year-old Luke Magoris, a descendant of one of those Varangians, believes it to be a myth – but then Luke becomes caught up in the power-politics between the rival cities of Monemvasia and Mistra, the Ottomans, and the trading empires of Venice and Genoa. His search for the truth about the treasure and the need to keep ahead of his enemies take him on a breakneck adventure around the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans and switchback changes of fortune.

This is storytelling on a grand scale, with a cast of thousands and tortuous political manoeuvrings. There are scenes of undoubted power and terror, such as the clash of the Ottoman army and the Crusaders at Nicopolis in 1396; however, a great deal of the writing seems to strive too hard to be epic and sensual, with the opposite effect. The graphic sex-scenes, mostly involving the novel’s “bad girl”, Zoë Mamonas, seem superfluous. Luke is an admirable hero, but the characters who really come alive are the spirited Anna Laskaris, the love of Luke’s life, and the ruthless, ambitious Zoë.

The author clearly has a well-researched knowledge of late mediaeval Byzantine history, but on a pedantic point, bougainvillea and prickly pears, although ubiquitous in the Mediterranean region today, are both natives of South America and would be unknown in Europe at the time the novel is set. This is the first in a trilogy and inconveniently ends on a cliff-hanger.