by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Videssos Besieged marks the conclusion of Harry Turtledove's "The Time of Troubles" series. Like the second book in the series, Hammer and Anvil, this novel focuses on Videssian Avtokrator Maniakes and his attempts to avert the first ever conquest of Videssos the City. What makes Videssos Besieged a triffle odd is that fact that although the novel begins with Maniakes approaching the Makuraner capital of Mashiz, he is recalled to Videssos to defend the city against a joint Makuraner/Kubrati attack. Once he arrives in Videssos the City, Maniakes spends much of the remainder of the novel responding to the threats or actions of others. Abivard, the Makuraner general who was the protagonist of The Stolen Throne and The Thousand Cities, spends much of the novel off-stage, but also seems to be more involved in the action than Maniakes.
More than the novels which comprise "The Tale of Krispos" or the "Videssos Cycle," the four books in the "The Time of Troubles" focus on Videssian military maneuvers rather than political mechanizations. Unfortunately, there are only so many ways to describe troops slogging through the mud. However, Turtledove breaks up the monotony of his troop movements by examining Maniakes' relationships with a wide variety of his subjects and family, not least of whom is his brother-in-law/cousin the Sevastos Rhegorios.
Because Videssos Besieged is the fourth book of the series, Turtledove has many threads remaining open form the earlier novels. Although some of these, such as the destruction of the Thousand Cities, are left open, Turtledove uses Videssos Besieged to resolve most of the issues, such as the attempted assassination of Maniakes by Tzikes and Parsmanios. "The Time of Troubles" novels are based, as so much of Turtledove's Videssian writings are, on Byzantine history, in this case the reign of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641). Just as history does not tie things up in neat packages, neither does Turtledove. Although Videssos Besieged ends with a peace existing between Makuran and Videssos, it also leaves hints of future difficulties for both Abivard and Maniakes as well as their kingdoms.
A comparison between Maniakes' character in Hammer and Anvil, in which he becomes Avtokrator, and in Videssos Besieged is instructional. In the former book, a younger Maniakes has no compunction about taking on the mantle of Avtokrator. In Videssos Besieged, Maniakes has worn that mantle for ten years and has that much more experience. He has come to realize that being Avtokrator is not simply a game or a whim. It is a difficult job which involves making difficult choices and harsh responsibilities. Even when he does well, he will still be despised by a segment of society for no reason other than his position. In Hammer and Anvil, it seemed as if some force (Phos, Skotos, the God, Turtledove?) was out to get Maniakes. In Videssos Besieged, Maniakes' luck is beginning to change, although he still seems to be more of a puppet figure of some force than a catalyst for change. However, he no longer appears as Turtledove's answer to the Biblical Job.
The Midwinter Festival with which Turtledove ends the novel (and which appears in so many other Videssos novels) provides a good summation of the books' events as well as the opinions of the commoners about their public figures. In this particular case, Turtledove is able to sum up, not only Videssos Besieged, but the entire "The Time of Troubles" series. Finishing the novel with Maniakes and Lysia, his cousin/wife, at the Midwinter Festival also allows Turtledove to end the series, which could be pretty bleak, at times, on a lighter note. Despite the bleakness, Turtledove does manage to infiltrate some of his signature humor into the novel, although in Videssos Besieged, his jokes are not quite as obscure as they frequently are and Turtledove lets the reader know when they have occurred.
Overall, Videssos Besieged provides a strong conclusion to "The Time of Troubles," although it would be a happier ending if Turtledove had announced that there would be more stories dealing with the Videssian empire and its neighbors. He has left literally thousands of years worth of stories to be told, ranging from the founding of Videssos, to the antipathy of Avshar, to the conquest of Makuran, to the fate of the Roman Legion or any of the periods between. Logic tells the reader that all of Videssian history could not possibly continue to closely follow Byzantium for the simple reason that Turtledove's world does not seem to contain a Roman analog.
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