Byzantium boasts unfulfilled potential. Review by Violet Kane

Book Cover
Byzantium, by Stephen Lawhead, has a lot to recommend it. However, an uneven treatment of its characters distracts from its achievements.

I was excited to pick up Byzantium from the bookstore shelf. As a fan of the "maligned" areas of medieval Europe (the ones least often treated by writers and least often studied), I was happy to see a novel about some of my favorite historical places. Set in the earlier Middle Ages, Byzantium follows an Irish monk on an expedition to deliver the Book of Kells to the Emperor of Byzantium. Along the way, his ship gets hijacked by a band of Vikings, who take him up the northern shore of Europe and down the waterways through Rus' (present day Russia and Ukraine) to Byzantium and beyond.

This book is a well-researched tour of Eastern Medieval Europe, and for that I would have to recommend it to fantasy readers looking for a change of venue from the typical Anglicized fantasy world. However, the book is not without its troubles. It starts out slow. After being told in Chapter One that he has been chosen to join the delegation to Byzantium, our main character, the monk Aidan, takes nearly 70 pages even to get into the boat. The most troubling aspect, for me, of this book is the development of the main character, Aidan. Lawhead chooses to tell this story in First Person from Aidan's perspective, and I don't feel that this point of view choice served the story. First Person storytelling leads me to expect a story that is inextricably intertwined with an enthralling character. Aidan has his points of interest, certainly, but this book puts its exotic settings, its numerous secondary characters, and its adventure-driven plot at center stage. During too many scenes, especially in the first half of the book, Aidan merely observes the action of other characters, rather than taking part in it. Accordingly, Aidan's transformation from devout monk, to cynical renouncer, and finally to his soul's compromise, seemed abrupt to me. I feel that the story could have better been told in a Third Person shifting viewpoint. With all the attention Lawhead gives the secondary characters, while not give us their viewpoints? Gunnar the Viking makes a huge transformation throughout this novel. Why not let us see events from his perspective as well? Spreading the point of view duties around to other characters would have given those characters their due and would have taken so much of the burden off Aidan. His ideological transformations would have been more believable if we had seen him from the perspectives that other characters.

Despite my problems with the character development and point of view, I believe that most fantasy and historical fiction fans will find it worth reading. Above anything else, Lawhead should be applauded for his investigation of non-Western European cultures, a rarity in fantasy/historical today.

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Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.