Memoirs of a Byzantine eunuch
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
I like historical novels, especially when they are presented well. Often so much will depend on the setting, and Byzantium in the ninth century, a hotbed of political and religious intrigue, is a perfect setting. Our hero is Zeno of Tmutorokan, and we follow his autobiography from capture and castration by the Norse to political pawn and manipulator at the courts of Emperors. Let's face it, you know a book is going to be good when the first chapter includes the question "How did I... come to be serving the Emperor Michael III at a heretical mass... while dressed in the cast-off vestments of a Metropolitan of Thessalonica?"
And it is good; a roistering tale of unfit kings and power-mad nobility, of freaks and wars, of sex in all guises and the theft of old books. There are so many moments that stun the reader, particularly a startling misuse of a Holy relic and a brutal journey through an underground prison, that I was almost lost trying to keep up. There is not a single character without an agenda, no innocents or impartials. Zeno plods through the chaos, trying to advance his schemes when he can, resolved to lackeydom when he cannot. This is one of the strengths of the novel: unlike the recent 'Ramses' books, the titular eunuch gets dumped upon (sometimes from a very great height indeed) on a regular basis. There is a real sense of distrust in Zeno's account, almost as if he fears to give out information as much as he feared to give it out at the time. The court is seen as a place of close-held cards, mirrored in its shiftiest inhabitant Theodore, whose book-thieving business is a metaphor for the underhand transfer of information the court thrives upon. Zeno and Theodore are occasional foes, and occasional allies, a pattern that moves as the eunuch's influence waxes and wanes: Zeno celebrates Theodore when he helps out, and berates him when he outsmarts the eunuch.
There are plenty of big names to please the history buff, including sniping about the scholar Constantine's new alphabet for the Bulgars (he will later be canonised as St. Cyril, and his alphabet is the Cyrillic of modern Russian) and Zeno is present at some of the major political upheavals of the time. Some of the murders take the reader by as much surprise as they do Zeno, unless you know your Byzantine history. Stylistically, Harris is believable, even having his Zeno qualify some of his reports as hearsay when he could not have been present. Many will dislike the out-and-out sexism shown by the scholars, but the emasculated Zeno naturally undermines these views together with his fellow eunuchs such as the fanatic Ignatius and the perverted Cyril. It might be a struggle, but if you can accept that the views of women are being undermined, you will find this an agreeable read. Zeno's life might read like a cross between a political thriller and trashy sex novel at times, but it's all good stuff. After all, what could there not be to like in a book concerned as much with heresy as it is with war, and as concerned with sex as it is with the progression of the Holy Spirit? It also has the rare distinction that a second reading will show just how well the "surprises" are planned, and like Zeno, the benefit of hindsight alters your view of what everyone does, and might also make you think that Zeno isn't quite what he seems... give this one a try. Look out for the birds though, for they are creatures of the devil.