My mother told me about Tales of Byzantium by Eileen Stephenson, after hearing I had been reading P.M. Prescott’s historical fiction. It is a collection of three short stories, all set in medieval Byzantium. One is a romance, one is a war story, and one is essentially a piece of characterization.
Stephenson is a very versatile writer. Each story has a distinct tone to it that is appropriate for the genre of each. Personally, I liked the war story “The Red Fox” best–though that is only a personal preference matter. As Mr. Prescott can attest, I tend to prefer war stories to romance. All the characters are very well drawn and differentiated in each story.
“The Red Fox” has the most complex narrative structure of the three stories, and I think it is the most effective. It begins with a military commander arriving to tell the Emperor about a bold gamble he has made, then flashing back to recount the events that precipitated it, and then concluding with the emperor’s response. It is well paced and I liked the plot.
The final story “Alexiad” may not work as well if the reader is familiar with the historical figures involved; but I found it to be a nicely done story of the evolution of a personality. That said, the ending felt slightly rushed. It seemed like there was a lot of a build-up for a payoff that, while satisfying, could have been taken more slowly. Of the three, I think “Alexiad” has the most potential to be expanded into a longer tale.
The only quibble I have is one quite common in historical fiction: the clash of esoteric terms with modern ones. Since most of Stephenson’s characters speak in modern English, it is jarring to occasionally have ancient words like “Exkoubitores” interspersed. Obviously, this is a necessary conceit of the genre, and Stephenson was wise to avoid adding pages of parenthetical definitions, but even so it has the effect of taking the reader out of the action.
The other slight problem is occasionally plot developments are conveyed by telling, rather than showing. This is particularly an issue in the middle of the second and the beginning of the third story. It’s a problem every writer faces at some point, and it’s especially hard to overcome in historical fiction, but I felt that certain things that could have been explained in dialogue were instead simply told in omniscient narration.
However, these are minor issues, and the book is extremely enjoyable on the whole. It is very carefully edited, which is a plus–many self-published books suffer from sloppy proofreading. Not this one.
I suspect someone with a more thorough knowledge of Byzantium would get more out of the book than I did, (though it may also ruin some of the surprises) but from my layman’s perspective, it was very good indeed.