Another book in my quest to know more about Istanbul and its previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world.

This book was particularly welcomed because so far I’ve focused on Ottoman Constantinople and know very little about what happened before, especially the Crusades that weakened the Byzantine Empire and opened the way to the 1453 Fall. So even if the plot of The Sheen… didn’t completely work for me, the historical setting alone was worth the 19 hours of audiobook.

The story opens in 1273, almost seventy years after the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantine Empire stands, but is still suffering the consequences of the loot. The Crusaders took almost all religious icons to Rome and depleted Constantinople is no longer a place of pilgrimage.

In trying to prevent another (and likely permanent) invasion, Emperor Michael Palaeologus is trying to unite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Many old families, however, see this agreement as the beginning of the end for Byzantium, and vow to prevent it.

It’s this nest of intrigue and conspiracy that welcomes Anna Zarides. She traveled to Constantinople to clear the name of her twin brother Justinian, exiled to Jerusalem for murdering a prominent political figure. In order to move freely in the city and among its noble houses, Anna disguises herself as Anastasius, a eunuch who sells his services as a skilled physician.

The promise of a murder mystery never really delivers and the pace is surprisingly slow for a novel so filled with schemes and political manoeuvring. I got left with the feeling that Anne Perry tried to go all Byzantine (pun intended) with the story, making it too complex, devious and all-encompassing. What remained were way too many subplots, including the heritage of Anna’s romantic interest, the machinations of the two Papal ambassadors, the doubts of the Emperor, and the evil doings of Anna’s most powerful patron, the villain-you-love-to-hate Zoe Chrysaphes.

So while each chapter (and even sections within them) alternates between the different characters, the plot that started as a murder investigation suddenly zooms out and becomes focused on the fight for Constantinople’s soul. All this complimented by long descriptions of Anna’s medical cases. Couldn’t help thinking that Anne Perry could have made three or four more successful novels out of this one.

I did find myself thinking all too often “Wait, who are you and how do you related to the plot?” or “Enough with the ointments!”, but one of my main goals was to learn more about this period, and Anne Perry clearly did her homework. She was also very successful in recreating the feeling of nostalgia for a time of beauty and culture that was disappearing along with the Byzantine Empire.

It seems Anne Perry is famous for her Victorian novels, but I’d never heard of her before. Have you? Any recommendations?

Conquest Of Constantinople By The Crusaders In 1204

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Other thoughts: The Printed Page, The Romantic Armchair Traveler (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul

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