SHARDS OF EMPIRE
by Susan Shwartz
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
During the battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Turks, led by Alp Arslan, succeeded in capturing the Byzantine emperor, Diogenes IV Romanus. The Turks were helped, in part, by treason on the part of Andronicus Ducas, whose nephew, Michael, had briefly held the Byzantine throne before Romanus and who would hold it again after the emperor was captured.
Shards of Empire tells the story of another one of Andronicus' nephews, Leo Ducas. While Michael was safe in Constantinople preparing to seize the throne as soon as word came, Leo is with Andronicus at Manzikert. When Andronicus fails to go to Romanus' rescue, Leo turns his back on his kinsman and rides to his death at the side of the emperor. Leo is taken captive with Romanus and serves as the fallen emperor's servant as they face Alp Arslan and Leo's own kinsmen. When Andronicus arranges to have Romanus blinded by a Jew, Leo tries to comfort the Jewess, Asherah, who refuses to leave while her kinsman must perform the disfiguring act. Following Leo's return to Constantinople, Asherah's courage calls to him like a beacon and he begins to fall in love with her memory.
His desire for Asherah and his awkward position in the capital, as the Ducas who turned traitor on his own family, leads Leo to seek either the vanished Jewess or a life as a monk in Romanus' native region of Cappadocia. In his quest he finds both and must make the choice between his religion or marrying a woman with whom Byzantine law harshly forbids a union.
Many of Shwartz's characters are likeable, from Leo to Romanus to Father Meletios, the blind head of the monastic order Leo seeks to join. However, these same characters are given to strange twists in logic, motive and action. Meletios gives Leo advice which seems strange for a man who is painted as holy and religious as Shwartz paints him. Leo seems a little too quick to turn his back on his Christian upbringing in a world in which religious tolerance was a rare exception. Shwartz accurately points out that the number of laws passed forbidding marriages between Jews and Christians demonstrates how often those same laws were broken, however, I imagine the principles wouldn't break them as quickly or as easily as Leo is ready to do.
Shwartz's plot move slowly, she spends a lot of time setting the scene of the eleventh century Byzantine empire. Her success at describing the setting is a testimony to her abilities as an author as well as her skills as a researcher. By the time the plot gets under way, however, most of the book has passed. Shwartz introduces a major plot point about one hundred pages from the end. Although there a few clues that something waits in the wings, introducing the secret of the valley earlier, or providing more hints as to what is coming, would have added a much deeper dimension to the book which is lacking as it is written.
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