Review of The Mistra Chronicles Books 1 and 2.
by James Heneage.
I love books that take me to exotic and unfamiliar times and places and these books do that in spades. They are set during the last days of the Byzantine Empire, when Constantinople is under threat from the Turks. I did not know that Mistra, on the Greek Peloponnese, was one of the last outposts of the empire but Heneage’s description has made me want to visit it.
His hero, Luke, is descended from one of the Varangians, exiles from England after the Norman Conquest, who formed the emperor’s elite bodyguard and who, we learn in a preface, escaped from Constantinople just before it was sacked in the Fourth Crusade with a great but mysterious treasure. He is in love with Anna, the daughter of the ruler of Mistra but his low birth means they are destined to be kept apart. His adventures take him first to the island of Chios, another unfamiliar place to me, and I was fascinated to learn about the importance of the trade in mastic and the labyrinthine villages constructed to save the people from pirate attacks.
The story progresses and both Luke and Anna are caught up in the machinations of the Turkish Sultan, the wily Venetians and Anna’s devious father-in-law. There are plenty of unexpected twists and turns to the plot and Luke and Anna are brave and far-thinking in their efforts to outwit them.
In Book 2 the action moves even further afield as Luke is sent to to the court of Tamburlaine the Great, the Mongol lord who swept through Asia minor in the fifteenth century. This is a part of history I knew little about and Heneage evokes brilliantly the exotic combination of barbarism and luxury surrounding Tamburlaine’s court. He was a bloodthirsty monster, massacring whole populations of cities that opposed him and leaving pyramids of skulls to mark his passage.
I was gripped by these stories but I have some reservations. Luke seems to me a little bit too perfect; a warrior who can overcome all opposition; a wily negotiator; brave and honourable – but I found my sympathy for him stretched to breaking point when he remains with Tamburlaine, as a trusted companion, even after the most terrible massacres. The excuse is that he is oath sworn and has a task to do, to persuade Tamburlaine to attack the Turks and so distract them from Constantinople and the writer shows that he is driven to despair by what he sees, but I kept thinking ‘why don’t you just ride away?’.
A more important criticism is the writer’s reliance on elements of the supernatural. Luke learns in a dream that Anna is in no immediate danger, so he can leave for the east; she knows that he is still alive by looking into the eyes of his horse. There are books which are entirely predicated on the existence of the supernatural, such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I can happily accept that. But when they are used as plot devices in an otherwise well researched and realistic historical novel I think that is illegitimate. Most irritating is the use of the mysterious treasure rescued from Constantinople, which is unearthed and gazed upon with awe and wonder at the end of both books. We are never told what it is, only that it will ‘change the world’. I assume the author’s idea is that we will keep reading subsequent volumes in order to find out; but I fancy that the final revelation will be an anticlimax. What can possibly live up to the significance laid upon it? Does the author himself know what it is?
These caveats apart, I was hooked on these stories and would recommend them to anyone looking for a gripping historical read.