by: James Shipman

I've always been fascinated by Constantinople (now Istanbul), that city that sits between the East and the West, and is the point of demarcation between the Muslim world and the Christian.

Hagia Sophia, first an exquisite Christian (Catholic) basilica in the city, then a grand mosque, and now a museum, stands as a perfect symbol of the struggle that has continued to pull this area of the world in two - a division that in many ways remains as bitter as ever it was in history.

The novel takes places in the 15th century. Constantiople has stood as a Christian city for many centuries, and it a stick in the eye of the Ottoman Turk Sultan and his son, Mehmet, who has been given leadership, only to have it revoked for his failure to lead. Now Mehmet has been given another chance - and he sees his way to glory as recapturing the glorious city.

On the other side of the walls - the inside - is Constantine, ruler of the Eastern Holy Roman Empire.

Mehmet is hot-tempered, immature, fiesty, and absolutely determined to make a name for himself.

Constantine is wise, kind, and ruling a crumbling empire.

The clash that ensues is timeless: a culture struggles to maintain its foothold in a world that is changing around it so rapidly it is still reacting when it's already far too late. Another culture dominates, but through brute force, youth, and vigor - not necessarily wisdom and grace.

On each side, the leader is beset from within: Mehmet's Grand Vizier is plotting against him while pretending an oily obsequiousness. Constantine pleads with Rome to protect its Eastern brethren, only to be lied to and used as a pawn in a game for dominance.

The best part of this book will appeal to historians: the research is clearly deep and careful, and the book is rich with details, particularly of battles, strategies, and the weaponry of the day. The plot, as such, is less riveting, though the author can hold his head up that more than once I turned to the next chapter not only because the history was so fascinating - but because I truly did want to see who was up to what when on a plot-and-character level.

As with many histories, the writer struggles sometimes with language: we seem to feel that people always spoke in more tortured phrases than we do today, yet at the same time, there is a need to keep the reader clearly ensconced in an historical time frame. I have never come to a satisfying conclusion to this problem - just as movie makers feel obliged to have historic nobility always speak with British accents, writers feel obliged to have characters from times past speak in formal language. Shipman is no exception.

Still, his Mehmet is a believable hot-head who is more clever than even he himself realizes, and his Constantine is a man who sees that he has no real way out, but must face his end with honor.

If for no other reason than to imagine the possible parallels with the modern world, this book deserves to be widely read. Oh, and you may learn a little history, too!


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