The Belt of Gold: Cecelia Holland

★★★★

When Hagan and his brother Rogerius arrive in Constantinople in 802, on their way home to Frankland from Jerusalem, they see it only as a stop on their journey. They have fulfilled their pilgrimage and now look forward to resuming their lives among the mists and forests of their native country. But when an accidental encounter with a beautiful young woman and a gang of thugs leaves Rogerius dead, the heartbroken Hagan vows revenge. Little does he realise that this vow will draw him deep into the midst of the literally byzantine plots unfolding in the Queen of Cities, and entwine his future with that of the beautiful, charismatic, dangerous Empress Irene.

That encounter outside Constantinople, which spells the end of the road for Rogerius, haunts Hagan. He is determined to kill the men who murdered his brother, as demanded by the Frankish laws of honour, but first he has to find them. All he has are two names – Karros, a servant of the wealthy patrician John Cerulis; and the woman Theophano, beautiful and compelling servant of the Empress. And, in the meantime, Hagan also has to come to terms with the City itself: a beguiling labyrinth of luxury and unimaginable splendour, where common people argue about the finer points of religion, and even the nobles are driven to ecstasies by the races in the Hippodrome.

When he manages to find Theophano again, Hagan finally has a route of access to the Empress herself: glittering Irene, sole Basileus, ruling in her own right as Augustus, and answerable only to God. But, rather than making his vengeance easier, Hagan finds that his new acquaintance simply complicates matters. For Constantinople is a city of half-truths and lies, spies and secret messages, and John Cerulis – whose servant Karros is top of Hagan’s list – believes, not very discreetly, that he would make a far better Emperor than Irene. Unwittingly, Hagan has stumbled into the inner chambers of power and, by the time he understands enough to rue his decision, it’s too late to back out.

I’ve read one of Cecelia Holland’s books before – City of God, a novel about the Borgias which didn’t really impress me that much – and so I’ve been chary about picking up another, just in case. But The Belt of Gold has been a pleasure to read. She creates a broad cast of characters whose stories intersect with Hagan’s, whether that’s the ambitious charioteer Ishmael, the arrogant Prince Michael, the overworked treasurer Nicephorus or the slyly serene Parakoimomenos (because every story needs a conniving eunuch, obviously). She sweeps us from the stables at the back of the Hippodrome into the heart of the arena on race day, and from the terraced gardens of the palace to the modest taverns where the charioteers and grooms drink. It feels like an epic panoramic sweep across the whole of Byzantine society, with a gripping story of revenge and (a little bit of) romance at its heart.

My knowledge of Byzantine history is limited, to say the least, and most of what I do know is confined to Justinian, Theodora and Belisarius, so I was fascinated to learn about a very different era – and a rather incredible woman. Holland’s Irene is compassionate but also ruthless and she made a deep impression on me: in a world that looked down on women, she outlived her husband (the former Emperor) and then deposed and blinded her own son Constantine, in order to take the reins of power. And she maintained that power for 22 years, rejuvenating the city, ending the practice of iconoclasm and cautiously putting out feelers towards the rising power of the Carolingian Empire. (She does seem to have considered a marriage with Charlemagne; someone said recently that she’d decided against it because he was illiterate and this idea rather charms me, though I haven’t yet found a source for it.) Several of the other characters in the story also really existed, but I’d advise that you don’t look any of them up on Wikipedia until you’ve read the novel. I managed to resist the lure, and was surprised by how things turned out.

Thus, a strong addition to the field of Byzantine historical fiction and, quite simply, a jolly good read, full of sword-fights, plotting in dark corners, powerful women and thrilling chariot races. (Istanbul is certainly inching its way up my holiday wishlist, although I understand the chariot racing isn’t what it used to be.) It’s also a counterbalance to the several books I’ve read about Britain in the same period. Holland really seems to know her stuff and I now feel a fresh surge of determination to read some of her other novels: I have Jerusalem, Hammer for Princes, The Angel and the Sword and Until the Sun Falls on my TBR pile, so I won’t be running out of possibilities any time soon. It also turns out that she’s written a fantasy-historical adventure series about Vikings, starting with The Soul Thief, so needless to say that’ll be sidling its way into my library sooner or later…

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