Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Review: Hero of Byzantium

This book has been dancing around in my peripheral vision for a couple years now. knows my reading habits frightfully well based on my past purchases and they've been prodding me about this book in their "you might also like" way for some time. Well, I finally put the book on my wish list and, voilĂ ! received it as a gift from my adorable wife.

I must admit, though, for a book that seemed tailor made for me, it left me a bit cold. First off, let me say that the author should be commended for his attempt. Belisarius is a fascinating historical figure who lived during a fraught and intriguing period in history and I applaud anyone who tries to tackle the subject. Also, given all that we know about Belisarius, attempting to fit his entire eventful life into one 176 page book is a daunting task.

The author should also be congratulated for working aspects of Christianity into his tale--and not in the sneering, patronizing way the Faith of the 6th century is often treated by modern writers.

Sadly, though, this book is a good example of what happens when an author with a great idea goes the self-publishing route. First off, the interior layout of the book is clumsily done. There are no paragraph indents throughout the entire book and the text is littered with really basic typos. The dialogue is stilted and has an artificial feeling to it--like watching one of those dubbed Italian gladiator movies from the 1950s. No real insight is provided into why the characters, other than Belisarius, do what they do. The descriptions of the many battles are cursory and the peeks into the private life of Belisarius and Antonina were awkwardly handled.

The history is also shaky. Of course, the author should be given some leeway considering that this is a novel and not a proper biography. But for heaven's sake, there are three errors in the book's first sentence!
"In the year 529 C.E., the Persian Emperor Khosrow the first, having recently ascended to his father's throne, sent a great army to the west to conquer the walled city of Dhara in northern Syria."
1. Khosrow was not the King of Persia in AD 529.
2. It was not he, but his father Khavad who sent an army to conquer Daras.
3. Daras was located in Roman Mesopotamia, not Syria.

The errors go on from there, but admittedly, they are fairly inconspicuous and don't hamper the story too much. More annoying was that the author continuously uses the anachronistic C.E. (Common Era) for dating, even when he is directly emulating the writing of Procopius. Although A.D. would have been anachronistic as well, it would at least have been more in keeping with the Christian theme of the work than the post-Christian "C.E." More amusing than annoying are the uncaptioned photographs of miscellaneous Greco-Roman ruins in the middle of the book. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what these have to do with Belisarius.

I think the author's biggest problem with regard to the history is that he only did surface research before setting out to write this book. The sources he cites at the end are scanty and of the works of Procopius, the most indispensable historian of all for the period, he only cites the scandal-mongering libel known as the Secret History. How an author can write a tale about Belisarius and not consult the extensive public histories of Procopius is beyond me. It's also clear that the author never dipped into either Agathias or the Chronicle of John Malalas--two other near contemporaries of Belisarius that contain a wealth of information on the great general and the 6th century Roman Empire.

So Hero of Byzantium gets only two stars from me, I'm sad to say. It was a noble attempt but riddled with too many problems to be a satisfying read.

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