This book is set in an alternate 15th Century Europe where a pagan Byzantine Empire dominates Europe and Christianity is a minor religion. Except for a rump buffer state, France has been carved up between England and the Byzantines. The empire is infiltrating the Italian city states and is now plotting against their English allies. A magician and a small group of like-minded individuals travel to England to attempt to stymie its plan.
Initially the setting struck me as a bit strange in the sense that a lot of the big name political characters and institutions are the same as in our world. Surely, the failure of Christianity to dominate Europe would have a multiplicity of effects, great and small, that would alter history more radically. Then I remembered the vampires and put such thoughts aside.
Though short, this novel is challenging. It is very dense and sometimes deliberately opaque on characters’ motivations. Some sentences are knots of meaning, elusive or enigmatic. It’s up to the reader to decode it without the easy cipher of exposition. This made it difficult to bond at first with some of the characters and to sympathize with their aims. The Byzantine Empire may be the ultimate villain, but it spends most of the novel as a distant shadow. A big help in interpreting the text was the fan-made commentary Draco Concordans. (Thanks to the reviewer Niki whose review mentioned it.)
I struggled through the first half of the book. I struggled to care. But by the end, I loved it, won over by its rich detail, thriller pace, and memorable images. It’s not an easy read, but if you stick with it, it’s a rewarding one.