The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry
|The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry|
|Genre: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Linda Lawlor|
|Summary: A rich and colourful tapestry of life in thirteenth century Constantinople.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: April 2010|
Anna Zarides arrives in Constantinople, determined to find out why her twin brother Justinian has been convicted of murder. But it is 1273, and a woman cannot move about freely to ask questions. Anna is a skilled doctor, who uses Arab and Jewish medicine in secret as well as more accepted Christian remedies: in her quest for information she disguises herself as a eunuch and successfully treats a wide range of people from the very poorest right up to the emperor himself.
More than half a century before, Constantinople was sacked and burned, and its inhabitants have only recently returned. But now peril looms again: another crusade is planned, and unless the city accepts the authority of the Pope it will be destroyed, this time forever. What is more, Islam is advancing from the East, threatening to overrun Byzantium. Anna becomes embroiled in the battles between those who wish to keep to the Orthodox faith of their ancestors whatever the cost, and those who believe, more pragmatically, that the only way to protect their city is to compromise and accept the leadership of Rome. Factions fight and plot, scheming and killing in their attempts to gain the upper hand, and Anna must struggle both to keep her secret and to find justice for her brother.
The many characters in this book are portrayed in abundant and complex detail. Palombara and Vicenze are papal legates who are in the city to ensure compliance with the will of Rome, but who spend as much of their energy in preventing each other from acquiring fame and power as in completing their mission. Giuliano Dandolo, a sailor with a Venetian father and a Byzantine mother he does not remember, is sent by the Doge to gain commissions to build ships for the crusader fleet. Constantine is a eunuch bishop who strives unsuccessfully to separate his faith from his wish for power. And Zoe Chrysaphes is a devious and passionate old woman who lived through the ruin of the city in 1204 and who will not hesitate now to use blackmail and murder to take her revenge on those she sees as traitors.
But, truth be told, it is Constantinople itself that is the main character in this book. Rich, sensuous descriptions abound, and when the book is finished it is hard for the reader to believe she has not seen for herself the fire-scarred streets, the magnificent jewels and icons, and the golden splendour of the Hagia Sophia.
This book is not exactly a mystery, although it has a mystery at its heart, and it is not a romance either, although its pages are filled with love. It is, in essence, a book about a city and a faith. It is possible that some of Anne Perry's fans, expecting a story in the style of Monk or Pitt, will be put off by its length, and by the number of characters, discussions and descriptions it contains. But it is worth persisting: at the end of a story as tortuous and twisted in its complications as the Byzantine mind it portrays, there is for the patient reader a satisfying simplicity and sense of completion. This is a book to inhabit, not to hurry through. It is a holiday book, to be read when your time is your own and your mind can absorb its glorious colours and tumultuous life. Medieval Constantinople was not the modern West; life and faith had different values, and time passed at an altogether different pace. You have to read this book for what it is, not what you want it to be, and unless you accept that, you will not enjoy it.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestions: Anyone wishing to find out more about the era spanned by the crusades could try Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea, and The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge.
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