When the falcon has flown, the mountain lion will charge from the east, and all Byzantium will quake. Only one man can save the empire ... the Haga! 1046 AD. The Byzantine Empire teeters on full-blown war with the Seljuk Sultanate. In the borderlands of Eastern Anatolia, a land riven with bloodshed and doubt, young Apion's life is shattered in one swift and brutal Seljuk night raid. Only the benevolence of Mansur, a Seljuk farmer, offers him a second chance of happiness. Yet a hunger for revenge burns in Apion's soul, and he is drawn down a dark path that leads him right into the heart of a conflict that will echo through the ages.
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This is a multi-layered novel set in the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire (a modern appellation, since the Byzantines, although by this time thoroughly Greek, considered themselves the true Roman Empire …and honored those ancient Western roots, in nostalgia if not practice. Although I know far less about this place and time than I do others, the history seems impeccably accurate, and the depth and specificity of detail lead me to believe that this book was thoroughly and intelligently researched.
I’ll admit to having a bit of a hard time reading it, had to read it in bits …but not because it was boring or uninteresting, or sloppily written. Just the opposite is true, actually. It was almost too detailed, too rich …to absorbing, and I found that I couldn’t just read it …I had to stop, assimilate, consider, and let my mind range through its reactions to each of the multiple layers.
First, there is the setting. It is so vividly portrayed and placed in its time, that I responded to it with all senses. I could *feel* the grit and the heat. I could *hear* the battle horns, the shouts, and the other terrible noises of war. I could *smell* the warm bread and the less pleasant scents of any Medieval city ..and the stench of the battlefields. I could *taste* the drink made from almonds and yogurt and honey, and the wine, and the honey cakes, and I could *touch* everything. In other words, this setting is a sensual feast, and a banquet of rich experiences, indeed.
Then there are the characters. Each of them, on both sides of this terrible centuries long conflict is not just well drawn, but intensely human, even the villains and the bit players. I found myself identifying with some, aching for them and caring about them, and absolutely hating others, wanting to see them be served a very large helping of very hot vengeance. Even the minor characters, many of who one sees in books about armies, are unique enough not to be one dimensional stock characters. There is the grouch, who has served so long he is cynical, impatient with new recruits and churlish …until is fighting back to back with one of them. There is the drunkard, whose main source of enjoyment involves strong drink and compliant ladies …until the enemy stands in his way, for example.
Then, there is something else. This is a brutal tale about a truly brutal time, and it impacted me on all levels, because the brutality wasn’t just physical, but emotional an spiritual as well. This land …this cradle of civilization has been a war zone for thousands of years …and the issues fought over are little different today than they were at the time of Christ, or even long before. Such constant upheaval, especially where diametrically opposed peoples, such as Byzantine Christians and passionate Islamic adherents met, created (and still create) upheavals of every sort, from clashing armies to devastated families and destroyed psyches and beleaguered souls. All of that is in this book, too …and I found myself considering how complex we are, how our beliefs affect us, and how, sometimes, we have to make choices that wrench us to the very essence of our being. Almost every major character in this book made such choices, and those choices had severe repercussions on every character.
No, this isn’t an easy book to read. It confronts the brutality of war and the brutality of man directly, and without flinching ..but it does so so very skillfully that, like a cobra readying for a strike, the reader is fascinated, and cannot step away …and in my opinion, should not, because these things are also a part of what we are.
The narrator was absolutely perfect for this book. He read with expression an skill, and had absolutely NO problem with the many specialized words and names to be found here. In addition, he just has the “right” voice for this book, and helps bring it into even more vibrant life, at least for me.
I’m not fond of rating books, but I will be giving this book and this narrator 5, and would give more, if I could. Did I “like” it? No …but I found it one of those book experiences that will stay with me for a *very* long time, and it has, via its excellence, had a profound effect on me, so I value it, highly.