Wednesday 15 May 2019

Imperial Passions by Eileen Stephenson

Imperial Passions: The Porta Aurea

"Ms Stephenson writes a fast-paced and gripping narrative. "


Family Drama
11th century
Byzantine Empire

I knew long before I started reading Imperial Passions that I was in the hands of an expert on Byzantine history. Ms Stephenson keeps up a varied and entertaining Twitter feed chock-full of references to long-dead emperors and empresses, complete with pictures of artefacts and surviving Byzantine buildings.

However, knowing your period is not enough. For a novel to grab and hold the reader’s attention, the passionate researcher must be capable of breathing life into the characters, make them relevant to us, no matter that close to ten centuries separate us from the events depicted. It helps, of course, if the main character is something out of the ordinary, and Ms Stephenson’s protagonist definitely qualifies as a one-of-a-kind lady. Anna Dalassena is one of the most forceful medieval ladies around. Ambitious, intelligent and determined, she forged the Comnenus dynasty, a strong presence behind the throne of her son, Alexios.

Imperial Passions does not tell the story of the mature Anna. Instead, Ms Stephenson presents us with a young girl, a member of a family presently living under something of a cloud. The politics of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century is a quicksand, a complicated, twisting thing where various families vie for power. All of this is deliciously brought to life by Ms Stephenson. Her knowledge and passion for the Byzantine period is apparent throughout the book, with elegant descriptions of everything from clothing to furnishing and food. She is also adept at casually including some of the more morbid aspects of this cultured world, like the tradition to blind potential rivals for the imperial thrones—and recently deposed emperors. It is a dangerous, turbulent period, the throne resembling something of a catapult seat. 

This is a world where ambition and ruthlessness can lead you right to the top—or crush the life out of you. It is a world in which the wise man (and woman) watches her step, each move as carefully considered as when one is playing chess with a master. 

Despite her youth, Anna Dalassena excels at chess. Ms Stephenson presents us with a vibrant character, a strong-willed and accomplished young woman who, to Ms Stephenson’s credit, still lives within the constraints imposed on the women of her time. Unfortunately for Anna, her family has somehow displeased the Emperor, which is why Anna, together with her grandparents, is sent off to the east, there to be adequately forgotten. Not that anyone perceives Anna as a threat, but her grandfather was once a very powerful man. 

Fortunately for Anna, her exile is not entirely without benefits, principally the presence of a young man named John Comnenus, her future husband. Yet again, Ms Stephenson gives us an engaging character, elegantly managing the challenge of making John a “modern” man in that he recognises Anna’s strength and capacity, while still being very much a Byzantine Pater Familias, a man who takes it for granted that in his household his word is law. 

Ms Stephenson writes a fast-paced and gripping narrative. Her characters speak very much like we do, a modern dialogue that may jar in the ears of some readers. To me, it does not, rather adding to the vibrancy of Ms Stephenson’s cast of characters. 

All in all, Imperial Passions is an engaging read, allowing us to peep into a period and culture that is not depicted that often in historical fiction. Ms Stephenson is an excellent guide through the complicated Byzantine history and as one book does not suffice to tell the fascinating story of Anna Dalassena, I hope Ms Stephenson will be kind enough to furnish us with a sequel. Soon! 

© Anna Belfrage

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