A riveting historical tale of intrigue, war & love in bygone Byzantium
The first review quote you see upon setting eyes on the UK edition of Meg Clothier’s The Empress seems odd to say the least: ‘So much more fun than another Boleyn book’ reads the chosen line from reviewer the Independent. Though easy to mock, and believe me, I have, this statement does a disservice to Clothier’s novel.
Set primarily in Constantinople, in the tumultuous years of the twelfth century Byzantium Empire, The Empress is one of those highly readable and engaging ‘sweeping epics’ that fill bookshelves after bookshelves these days. Yet for this story – a fictionalised account of the days of Princess Agnes of France, who at the beginning of the book is betrothed to the Emperor’s son Alexios – the setting provides a distinctive edge to Clothier’s tale.
The many conflicts, betrayals, loves and losses that occur in the relatively short period between the late 1100s and early thirteenth century AD are enough to bear brilliant fruit for a compelling and intriguing saga. The Byzantium Empire, and Constantinople itself, are ripe sites for historical retellings and captivating tales, yet it seems that relatively speaking not many authors have attempted to do so. Agnes’s story allows Clothier to boldly stand out amongst the historical fiction horde.
A young French girl having just barely hit puberty, being thrust into the lion’s den in a foreign land to master the art of court politics, marriage and warring lands, Agnes has a thankless task but a spirited temperament. Full of guile and innate intelligence, Agnes is no maudlin heroine, or shy dormouse, or even rebellious upstart like many recent YA leads; Agnes readily allows herself to give in to the lure of sitting in the lap of luxury whilst the world outside threatens to crumble to dust. Agnes is no villain, simply a young woman desperate to keep her head, or more accurately, to keep from being locked away in a nunnery. She is a survivor, and choices she makes throughout the book may confuse readers but will not deter them from her story for long. Now, don’t assume the heroine here is a Katniss Everdeen-esque warrior, good with a bow yet emotionally stunted, because Clothier still writes Agnes in light of a typical romantic heroine. Thankfully, not one who continually bemoans her own fate however, as Agnes is clever enough to navigate the palace machinations with plucky aplomb.
The characters each shine in various ways, and the book successfully avoids the use of stock figures. Well-researched or not, Clothier enriches her characters with enough personality and motivations to remain interesting. Even the villainous usurper Andronikos has his pleasant moments, and the feeble Alexios has his darker ones.
The Empress is of course, at its heart, a romance novel but fortunately, unlike the persistent efforts of characters in many other modern novels like this, our heroes are not similarly afflicted. Yes, they have their amorous moments, but Clothier successfully avoids hitting you over the head with such mawkish nonsense, at least in the book’s first half anyway. Instead the novel indulges in the grimier, more horrific aspects of the era, with the grisly end to one character (if you really desire spoilers, head over to Wikipedia or any more accurate history source to find out who I mean) written in shocking, though not gratuitous, detail. It’s enough to make even Game of Thrones fans shudder.
Any literary lovers who get their kicks from historical epics will find in this novel a generous amount of court intrigue, fancy customs and insights into a bygone age. It is a gripping read, splendidly paced, with enough bloody chaos and mayhem to avoid the trap of transforming a true tale of powerful people waging wars into the potentially soppy history of a Princess playing at being Empress.