The Belt of Gold (1984): 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.

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Now I Rise (2017): Kiersten White

★★★ ½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II

When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon.

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By Blood Divided (2017): James Heneage

★★★

The Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires): Book IV

A word of warning before I get into my flow: this is marketed as a potential stand-alone, but will make much more sense if you’ve read the previous three books in the Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires) series. I have not read these and consequently found myself floundering at first. Once I found my feet, however, I thought there was much to enjoy in this novel which takes us into rarely-mined historical fiction territory. Books set in the 15th century rarely make it further east than Venice and, indeed, we do spend some time in Venice here. But much of the story unfolds at Monemvasia and Mistra in the Peloponnese: two tiny outposts of the fading Byzantine Empire, standing proud against the looming armies of the Ottoman Turks. The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is at hand, and it will be bound up with the story of two courageous men and the woman who is loved by both of them.

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Blood Feud: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★★

After starting my Sutcliff journey with Sword at Sunset, I always intended to read The Eagle of the Ninth next, but things didn’t quite happen as planned. I have a lot of great big thick books lying around at the moment and, while hunting for something short as a kind of palate-cleanser between epics, I unearthed this little novel. It was allegedly written for children but, in the tradition of the best children’s literature, it’s equally rewarding to read as a grown-up. In fewer than two hundred pages, Sutcliff spins a stirring tale of honour, bravery and adventure, the Viking sea road and the golden domes of Byzantium. How could I resist?

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Children of Earth and Sky: Guy Gavriel Kay

★★★★

It’s been three long years since River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay’s last novel, so the publication of Children of Earth and Sky is quite an event and a cause for some celebration. From a personal point of view, the new book is made even more exciting by its setting. While Under Heaven and River of Stars took me out of my historical comfort zone – unfolding in the alternate-universe empire of Kitai, which drew on the dynastic splendour of medieval China – Children plunged me into the knotty political world of my very favourite period: the Renaissance.

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The Purple Shroud: Stella Duffy

★★★

This sequel to Stella Duffy’s Theodora picks up the story two years after the conclusion of the earlier book, when Justinian and his wife are established as Emperor and Empress. It covers the next twenty years of their reign and shows how, as the most powerful woman in the Western world, Theodora must shift her priorities. Nothing less than the safety of the Roman world is at stake, and there are dangers everywhere: in religious dissention; in the war with Persia; and in the presence of those who believe the purple would become them – whether that’s the ambitious John the Cappadocian, or the unfortunate Hypatius, whose claim is picked up by the mob.

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Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore: Stella Duffy

★★★

There isn’t enough historical fiction set in Byzantium (I’m open for recommendations!), and so I was very happy to find a copy of this book and its sequel, The Purple Shroud, in my local library. Although I read Antony Bridge’s biography of Theodora last year, I still don’t know as much about her as I’d like and I hoped that Duffy’s novel would throw some further light on the subject.

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Baudolino: Umberto Eco

★★★½

This was a reread, but it might as well have been a first encounter: I’d read Baudolino back in spring 2004 and remembered virtually nothing of the plot, beyond my delight that Niketas Choniates was one of the main characters. Yes, I probably do need to explain that. By sheer chance, I’d begun to read this novel after a term spent studying medieval European history, during which one of my essays had required me to spend a week getting my head around the mechanics of the Byzantine court. I didn’t really manage it, but it sparked off my fascination with Byzantium and, even better, it introduced me to Niketas. His Annals include what has become one of my favourite historian quotes: ‘There can be no one so mad as to believe there is anything more pleasurable than history.’ Bravo that man.

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Theodora (1989): Antony Bridge

★★★½

While still at school, I somehow acquired a copy of the Folio edition of Procopius’ Secret History, which I’m ashamed to say I never read and always regarded with slight suspicion. Since I didn’t encounter Byzantine history until one particularly complex and unsuccessful week in Hilary Term of my first year at university, I’ve no idea what possessed me to buy it.  Did I think it was some unusual edition of Donna Tartt’s excellent novel (one of my favourites)?  At any rate, poor Procopius lingered unloved and unread on my bookshelf until, at some point in the last ten years, he was obviously consigned to the charity shop.  It’s typical that, as soon as I yearn to plunge into his small-minded and salacious history, it turns out that I gave it away.  After reading this book, I definitely want to go back to it.

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