I’ve been waiting for this book since I read the first book in Stephenson’s Byzantium series back in 2018. And was it ever worth the wait. After setting the stage in The Porta Aurea, with the rise of the Emperor Isaac, Stephenson has events play out in dramatic fashion. It may seem odd to describe a historical fiction book as a political thriller, but at times that’s almost what this feels like. It’s that fast-paced and exciting.
Once again, the book is told from the perspective of Anna Dalassena, wife of John Comnenus, Emperor Isaac’s brother. The initial optimism they feel at Isaac donning the purple subsides quickly as they realize the extent of the mess he’s inherited. Misfortune follows misfortune, and soon Isaac is unable to serve, presenting John with an opportunity to reign.
This is a key episode in the book that I want to focus on, because John is presented with an opportunity to take power and turns it down. Anna resents this more than a little, not least because John’s refusal allows the contemptible Constantine Ducas to be installed as Emperor, with the help of the scheming bureaucrat Michael Psellus.
On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with John’s honest assessment that he would not be a very good emperor. He’s a decent, hard-working, well-meaning guy, but not ambitious or particularly suited to thinking on a grand scale. You’ve got to applaud him for knowing his own limits, and for not being easily goaded into taking power, which has well-known corrupting tendencies.
On the other hand, though… Anna makes the valid point that while John probably wouldn’t be a great emperor, it’s hard to imagine he could be worse than Constantine Ducas, a longtime enemy of Anna’s family as well as a generally horrible person. Given that John’s refusal to take his brother’s place results in Ducas taking the throne, there is a strong argument to be made that a sense of duty should have compelled John to take power, if only to prevent it from falling into the hands of someone even less suited to it.
Much has been written about the nobility of refusing power, and no doubt there is something to that; but there is also a sense in which taking power can be a sacrifice, which must be made to prevent worse abuses. After all, someone has to rule the Byzantine Empire. Is it better if it’s ruled by a stolid if unimaginative soldier, father, and husband, or a ruthless, abusive maniac? Something to ponder.
In any case, Ducas rules for a time, but eventually he dies and is replaced with his son, the Emperor Michael, who is only a teenager and in no way ready to assume the duties of Emperor. Thanks to Anna’s clever gamesmanship and political maneuvering, an extremely capable soldier named Romanus Diogenes rules as “co-emperor” and leads many successful campaigns against the Turks, who are continually harassing the edges of the Empire.
Romanus Diogenes is a brave and honest man who is, unfortunately, a bit too naive about the realities of politics. Once again, Psellus and another Ducas, (John, Constantine’s brother) conspire against him to reassert their power.
The whole book is a gripping tale of political intrigue, shifting alliances, backstabbing and maneuvering for power. I’d call it Machiavellian, except Machiavelli wouldn’t be born for a few centuries yet, so that seems inappropriate. But I think that gives you a good idea of what I mean.
Through it all, Anna is a likable and interesting narrator. She, and other women, may not often have held direct power during this period, but they had all sorts of ways of influencing events behind the scenes.
I’m really impressed by how vivid Stephenson makes everything feel. Too often, when I read historical fiction, I feel like I’m just watching cardboard cutouts go through prearranged motions to arrive at a foregone conclusion. Not with this book. It all felt immediate and real.
And one more word about that sneaky character Michael Psellus. He’s such an archetypal figure; the amoral administrator who somehow survives every regime change, largely because he knows where all the bodies are buried. He makes me think of Talleyrand, or, for fans of Brit-coms, Sir Humphrey Appleby. There’s no doubt he’s a snake, and yet I have a grudging sort of admiration for his persistence and resilience.
Psellus, by the way, was a real person and in fact wrote a book, from which comes much of our knowledge about the Byzantine empire during this period. I have not read his whole book. (Stephenson has, though, and she has written about Psellus on her blog, which you should read after you read her book.) But I have read the parts of it which correspond to the events in Imperial Passions.
Naturally, Psellus paints a very different picture of events than that described above. But then, he would, wouldn’t he?
Which telling should we trust, Stephenson’s or Psellus’s? Ah, well, my friends; that’s the fun of history, isn’t it? There are names and dates that we can all study and memorize, but beyond that, it’s really all about interpretation to weave a compelling story out of all these dry facts.
One thing I can say with certainty is that Stephenson has woven a masterful tale in her latest book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
[Audio version of this review available below.]