Stephen Lawhead is a very good storyteller, and Byzantium shows him at the peak of his abilities. It was so enjoyable that, upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to buy more of his books, even his long series, and dive right into them. It did not hurt that the book was set during one of my favorite historical eras, the Middle Ages when European culture was disintegrating and all the interesting events were taking place in the Middle East and Asia.
The narrator of Byzantium was Aidan, an Irish monk who was part of an expedition to bring a gorgeous hand-written book to the emperor of Byzantium. However, the journey was disastrous as the participants were attacked by Sea Wolves–whom we know call Vikings because when they went on voyages of plunder they went a-viking–and Aidan became a slave to one of the Danes. This led to a series of events which eventually made him the slave of King Harald of the Danes who initiated a sea voyage to plunder the legendary city of Byzantium. However, after spending some time in the city, Harald soon realized that plundering it was a foolish endeavor, so instead he and his men became mercenaries in the hire of Emperor Basil.
The Sea Wolves’ first assignment was serving as bodyguards to a diplomatic mission into Islamic country, another mission doomed to failure as they were attacked by a large group of Saracens who took all the survivors, including Aidan, as prisoners and forced to be slaves in the caliph’s silver mines.
Lawhead keeps events moving swiftly, and changes occur at a rapid pace. He is obviously enamored with history, since whenever the novel changes location, from Ireland to Denmark to Constantinople to an Islamic city, he gives us a tour of each location and spends considerable time exploring its wonders and culture. In some ways, Byzantium is a written museum of medieval history and a tour of medieval civilizations. For a lover of history, the book is worthwhile for that aspect alone.
While characterization is not emphasized, we learn much about the nature of the Danesmen, the inhabitants of Constantinople, and the Arabs. While many seem totally evil when Aidan first encounters them (the viciousness of the Sea Wolves’ attack, their initial treatment of their captive slaves, the arrogance of the officials in Constantinople, a similar viciousness by the Arabs), as Aidan becomes close to individuals in each group we learn that a member of a vicious culture is not necessarily a vicious individual.
Obviously, Byzantium has flaws. Some changes in Aidan’s situation occur much too easily. He goes from being a slave in the silver mines on the verge of death to an intimate advisor of an amir almost overnight. But because of Lawhead’s wonderful storytelling abilities, these flaws are acceptable, similar to the one suspension of disbelief in a speculative fiction. And only once does a major character act in a foolish manner which forwards the plot unfairly. In all other instances, Lawhead creates believable people acting in logical ways.
I recommend Byzantium highly both for its storytelling and its glimpse at various medieval cultures. Its’ 870 pages literally flew by.