Monday, July 2, 2012
4 Stars For Strategos
Author: Gordon Doherty
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
Strategos is an engaging trip to the 11th-century Byzantine borderlands.
In the mid-11th century, the Byzantine Empire finds its border threatened by the hungry Seljuk Sultanate. Caught up in the clash between the two warring empires is Apion, a young boy whose life is destroyed by the murder of his family during a Seljuk raid. His hatred and quest for vengeance is complicated by the unexpected aid of a Seljuk farmer and his family. As he grows into a man in the borderlands, Apion faces a complicated web of overlapping loyalties, corruption, and the bloody reality of war.
Whatever one thinks of the morality of vengeance, it does have a certain purity about it that makes it easy to understand, though not always interesting. Vengeance may motivate Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, for example, but the psychological complexity of the prince is what makes the drama compelling.
Such is the case with Apion, the protagonist in Strategos, who has his life course initially charted by vengeance. The friendship of a Seljuk farmer with his own complicated past and various other characters of various ethnicities and nationalities creates a lovely psychological stew for Apion as he moves forward in his quest. While Apion’s motivation and behavior are pretty straight-forward and his own ethical and moral codes perhaps a bit less troubled by self-doubt than the aforementioned emo Danish prince, the interaction with the various other characters still provides for a satisfying and realistic struggle as we follow Apion as a boy, and later as a man, trying to do what he thinks is right. There’s a bit of ambiguous prophecy that adds a bit of fatalistic drama to his struggles without ever steering the narrative away from straight-forward historical fiction.
The various secondary characters are also well-rendered, and I particularly enjoyed some of the glimpses into the men running the Sultanate. These are not, by our modern standards, men we’d necessarily think of as good, but they are still interesting men following their own complicated honor requirements. This allows them good contrast with both the honorable and less than honorable denizens of the Byzantine Empire. While the author doesn’t, in this book at least, push true relativism between the cultures, he does definitely take full dramatic advantage of having threats against the protagonist being both foreign and domestic.
The plot isn’t as Byzantine as the empire the novel is set in, but, at the same time, the inclusion of several intrigue elements steadily throughout does provide more than a few nice surprises. The Byzantine Empire was a society known to have more than its fair share of intrigue and even though Apion and his friends on the borderlands are less likely to be delving into those sort of matters as people in the capital, it is still nice to see some of those ideas and elements explored in creative ways.
Military matters take up increasing plot attention in the latter portions of the book along with an increasing number of actions scenes. These are crisp and well-executed, generating a good sense of excitement. They also do a fine job of depicting the military realities and tactics of the period.
Overall, Strategos is an engaging trip to the 11th-century borderlands.
Strategos is available for purchase at Amazon.