Good Reads Revisited
"This is a page-turner. The complicated history is explained tidily, never stopping the flow of the narrative yet never leaving the reader confused about who's who."
this edition published 2013
"Princess Agnes of France is thirteen when she marries the heir to Byzantium, an empire unmatched in wealth, power - and glamour. But once she sets foot in the Queen of Cities, a decadent world where dazzling luxury masks unspeakable cruelty, she realises that her husband has mighty enemies and treacherous allies.
As emperors rise and fall, Agnes learns to play the City's game - until she falls for a handsome rebel and finds that love is the most perilous game of all. Glittering parties in marble palaces soon give way to bloody revolution, shipwreck and exile, and Agnes discovers there is no limit to what she will do to survive. But only when crusading knights from her homeland attack the City does she finally understand what is truly worth fighting for."
I've had this book on my shelves for a while, and only just recently got round to reading it. I wish I hadn't waited so long. I'm ashamed to say that I knew very little about this place and time, and even had to use that well-known internet search engine to find out why they were all speaking Greek in Constantinople. At one point I also had to check why someone from Tblisi would be called Iberian. So, that's the general level of my ignorance. Add to that the fact that emperors come and go in this book more often than most people change their socks, and that they often have the same names, and by now you're no doubt assuming that this is an inaccessible book with an overly complex plot.
Well, far from it.
This is a page-turner. The complicated history is explained tidily, never stopping the flow of the narrative yet never leaving the reader confused about who's who. Agnes, the 'Empress' of the title, is beautifully drawn. She grows up during the course of the novel, and we see her learn from each harrowing experience, growing wiser and wilier in the process. She is not 'feisty', nor tempestuous; she's not always nice, but she has the self-awareness to realise when she's not being nice. Quite frankly, in her surroundings, she'd have been well within her rights to turn into a murderous monster herself. The palace is rife with intrigue, revolution and counter-revolution. Agnes gets caught up in it and yet learns to navigate her way through the danger. Sometimes. At other times, she's not so lucky.
There are moments of grotesque violence, but they are all based on true events. The soldiers use some choice language, and it's quite modern (the 'f' word is used liberally), but I liked this approach. Cod medieval-speak just wouldn't have worked here. These soldiers talk like soldiers; they don't mince their words.
Theo, the other main character, is also brilliantly drawn. He's not your typical hero and in fact, he makes some questionable choices along the way. I liked the fact that both he and Agnes are flawed, and that they both develop over the course of the story.
I've learned a lot about Byzantine and Venetian history by reading this book, and I was also thoroughly entertained by it. The ever-present menace which lurks in the corners of the vast palace made me desperate to find out what was going to happen, and I found that I really cared. (No spoilers, but there are occasions when characters whom you've grown to love don't make it to the last pages.)
All in all, an excellent read.
© Annie Whitehead
Good Reads Revisited
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