Byzantium by Michael Ennis

Occasionally, I fall in love with a novel. Even more occasionally, I find a novel (or a series) or an author that I know I want to reread.  Authors who fit that category for me include Dorothy Dunnett,  Emily Bronte and Lian Hearn.  Novels that fit that category for me include this novel, ‘Byzantium’ by Michael Ennis.

I’ve read this novel three times in the last twenty years or so.  And, at 700+ pages, it’s not a light undertaking.    Part of the appeal for me is the history of Byzantium, another part is the story of Haraldr Sigurdarson (better known to me as Harald Hardrada).

‘The most famed of all Varangians was a young Norwegian prince called Haraldr Sigurdarson …’

Mostly set in Constantinople during the 11th century, this novel is about Haraldr Sigurdarson, a dispossessed Viking prince who served as an imperial bodyguard.  This long, densely detailed novel brings the Byzantine court of the Empress Zoe and those associated with her to life.  There are many other memorable characters in this novel, including: The Emperor Michael IV, his brother Joannes the Orphanotrophus, and Maria, the Mistress of the Robes.

Into this world comes Haraldr Sigurdarson, seeking anonymity as a member of the Varangian guard.  He becomes caught up in the conspiracies and betrayals of the court, battling to establish a place for himself and to protect those in his care.

Haraldr Sigurdarson is known to history as Harald Hardrada. I knew more about his life after he left Byzantium, and I found this novel fascinating.  After my first read, during the 1990s, I started to read more about Byzantium and the Empress Zoe.  During my second read, about ten years ago, I focussed on the excesses of the court and the role of Joannes the Orphanotrophus.  During this read, I enjoyed the detail, thought about the excesses of power, and the inevitable demise of this fascinating empire.

While I doubt that I’ll read this novel again, it has left a lasting impact on me.  Mr Ennis made the Byzantine court come alive in a way which made me want to research the history and the characters, and added an extra dimension to my knowledge of Harald Hardrada.  This novel is not a light read, but I found it a most enjoyable one.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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