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IN BRIEF

Byzantium is an adventure story set on an epic scale. Bridging the ninth and tenth centuries, it concerns a group of Irish monks who are charged with the task of taking a beautifully illustrated and bejewelled Bible as a gift to the emperor of Byzantium in Constantinople. The story revolves around one particular monk, Aidan, who is separated for long periods from his brother monks, and whose journey turns out to be full of not only outward but also inward and spiritual peril. The action ranges from Ireland to Constantinople across present-day France, Scandinavia, and several Mideastern countries.

Stephen Lawhead is the author of a much-read trilogy dealing with the Arthurian legends, the Pendragon series. He has clearly mastered his craft. Like the best historical novels, Byzantium opens a window to remote times and places--worlds as diverse as the Irish monastery, the Viking drinking hall, the Muslim palace, and the cosmopolitan culture of Constantinople in its heyday. Several well-drawn characters enable us to see Byzantium through the eyes of a Viking pagan and Muslim prince as well as a Christian monk, and the shifting perspectives often make what would otherwise be taken for granted appear strange and new.

A particular strength of the novel is that it manages to treat all of these diverse cultures with respect yet unflinching honesty. A previous age might have chauvinistically caricatured pagans and Muslims. In these politically correct times such cultures are more likely to be romantically absolved of any evil. (I like to call this the Kevin Costner effect, as illustrated by the treatment of Native Americans in Dances with Wolves and Muslims in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.) The brutality of the Vikings is honestly portrayed in Byzantium, but so is the generosity and sense of honor of the Viking chieftain; we experience the horrors of the Khalif's slave-mines but also the elegance and refinement of Muslim culture. The same honest lens is turned on Byzantium itself, ...

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