(Originally published February 17, 2009)
I’ve been a fan of Stephen Lawhead’s historical fiction novels for a long time. The “Pendragon Cycle” was a work of towering excellence, as is his most recent series, “King Raven.” He has a knack for turning history into intense, spiritually compelling epics…and “Byzantium” is no exception.
The book tells the story of Aidan, a young Irish monk who joins a pilgrimage to present a valuable illuminated manuscript to the Holy Roman Emperor. Shortly after leaving Ireland, Aidan is captured by attacking Vikings and the story really takes off. Aidan’s adventures lead him from the icy wastes of the north into the deserts of the Saracen Turks, and from the simple monastery of Cennanus to the glittering city of Byzantium. The book is very much a coming-of-age story, as Aidan matures from an insecure, boyish priest into a confident, powerful man.
Lawhead is an excellent writer, and it shows. 860 pages makes for a long book, but “Byzantium” never seems dull or choppy. Powerful characterization is what drives this novel – both Aidan and the supporting cast are well-drawn and very compelling. Aidan’s experiences of fear, friendship, love, hope, disillusionment, and hatred feel remarkably genuine. These characters aren’t paragons of virtue – they’re real people struggling with real emotions, and this makes the story all the more powerful.
“Byzantium” also contains a meaningful subplot about losing and regaining faith. By clearly showing the weakness and frailties of humankind through depictions of the Byzantine imperial intrigues, Lawhead mirrors our own times while simultaneously offering hope for renewal. Refreshingly, Aidan’s struggles with faith issues never come across as trite or insipid – many Christian writers could stand to learn a lesson from this. Lawhead prefers slow growth to dramatic conversions, an approach that lends a much deeper meaning to the book’s conclusion.
From a purely action-junkie perspective, “Byzantium” contains plenty of visceral fight scenes. Lawhead’s fights are brutal and bloody, never flinching from historical realities. The violence isn’t gratuitous, but it’s certainly intense. Fans of “Age of Empires” or other strategy games will particularly appreciate a realistic naval battle between Viking longboats and Byzantine warships involving the use of Greek fire.
The story is smooth and well-told, with nary a dull moment. Objectionable content? None, aside from the often-gory fight scenes. “Byzantium” doesn’t try to mask the seedier side of history, but neither does it revel in it. It shows the depravity of man and the treachery of the human spirit – but never for mere shock value. There really are not very many flaws with this book.
If you enjoy historical fiction (or even if you’re a fantasy fan) “Byzantium” will grab you and never let go.
A magnificent story rich in historical detail, with a thought-provoking message of faith and renewal. Highly recommended.