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A Flame in Byzantium by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
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Title:A Flame in Byzantium
Authors:Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Info:Tor Books (1987), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 566 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, fantasy

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A Flame in Byzantium by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1987)



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A Flame in Byzantium is the first book in the trilogy featuring Atta Olivia Clemens (usually called simply Olivia), a character first introduced in the third published book in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's long-running Count Saint-Germain series, Blood Games (which is set in the Year of the Four Caesars), but whose voice usually makes an appearance in subsequent books set in subsequent times via her letters to Saint-Germain (she actually makes an "on camera" appearance in Night Blooming, set around the time of Charlemagne's being anointed Holy Roman Emperor); the trilogy is a sidebar to the Saint-Germain series proper, and Saint-Germain appears in this book only via a couple of letters that he exchanges with Olivia.

A Flame in Byzantium opens in 545 A.D., when Olivia, who was made a vampire by her former lover Saint-Germain in Blood Games, and her bondsman Niklos (a supernatural creature more akin to a kinder, gentler ghoul, as is Saint-Germain's manservant Rogerian; Niklos is some two hundred years younger than Olivia), are obliged to flee their estate in Rome (called here by its proper name, Roma) on the cusp of the second siege of Rome by the forces of the Ostrogothic king Totila during the course of the Gothic War (535 - 554), wherein the Eastern Roman Empire -- otherwise called the Byzantine Empire -- under Justinian I attempted to wrest as much of the territory of the Western, or classic, Roman Empire (chiefly the Italian peninsula, with particular attention given to Rome as the seat of Christianity) away from the Ostrogoths as it could.

Olivia and Niklos relocate to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople (often referred to here by its Greek name, Konstantinouplis), just recovering from an outbreak of bubonic plague three or four years prior, under the sponsorship of the Byzantine general Belisarius, since women have no rights of their own there, and are nearly as excluded from public life as in any of the repressive Islamic governments of our time; once there, she finds her life increasingly constrained, even though she is more or less taken under the wing of Belisarius's ambitious wife, Antonina, and introduced by her to the Empress Theodora, the equivalent to a former vaudevillian of her day (and much more, if some of the stories about her that have survived -- largely in Procopius's posthumously-published Secret History, or Anekdota -- are at all credible), and nearly as important an influence on the steering of Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical policy as her uxorious husband (although it must be said that they were, at least superficially, at cross purposes).

Olivia's unapologetic adherence to old Roman customs (especially as regards her, to the Byzantines, shockingly liberal treatment of her slaves) and deportment (women at this time in the Eastern Roman Empire are not supposed to be educated, literate, or express any opinions whatever in political, military, or ecclesiastical affairs; Theodora and Antonina are the rare exceptions to this rule), coupled with her sponsor Belisarius's falling under suspicion of Justinian, soon earn her the malicious attentions of the office of the Court Censor, who is essentially the head of Justinian's secret police. Although she takes comfort in the person of Captain Drosos, one of Belisarius's loyal officers, circumstances drive them apart: Justinian recalls Drosos from Italy and charges him with the burning of suspect literature contained in the Library of Alexandria (which is to say, all of it that is not explicitly of the type of Christianity of which Justinian approves), an act which effectively breaks Drosos and curdles his love for Olivia. Owing to her straitened circumstances -- though she is ensconced in a comfortable villa, Olivia cannot own her own property, or control her own finances; she also cannot enter into direct dialogue with court officials and bureaucrats, but must have a male conduct all of her affairs for her -- Olivia soon falls into the snares of a plot largely directed against Belisarius, as what a more recent time would call a "fellow traveler."

A Flame in Byzantium is an extreme example of the drawbacks to Yarbro's writing, to wit: Yarbro condenses, elides, or flat-out ignores much of the admittedly tangled backstory of Justinian and Belisarius, in favor of presenting a more streamlined narrative. Unfortunately, these omissions mean that the political intrigues as presented here -- chiefly embodied by the complicated dance that Justinian and Belisarius enacted with each other throughout their long careers -- feel airless and weightless, with relatively little significance outside of placing Yarbro's main character in mortal peril. Yarbro mostly ignores the tangled thicket of religious controversy that Justinian so loved to plunge into (her chief nod towards this complicated ecclesiastical history comes in Part II ("Drosos"), Chapter 6, when the Court Censor complains to one of his underlings of the weariness of "'expunging the heretical writings of Eutyches and his followers'" [p. 211]); however, it would've been nice if she had managed to at least hint of Belisarius's varied career, which saw him participate not just in the major military campaigns of the Empire, but also in at least some of the religious controversies: had she done so, his falling under Justinian's suspicion might've been more fraught and more poignant than it is here.

Justinian serves as the driving, though off-stage, villain of A Flame in Byzantium; indeed, in Yarbro's telling, he is more akin to a modern totalitarian ruler -- a Stalin, a Mao Zedong, a Kim Il-sung -- than he is to an early medieval autocrat (or, more properly speaking, theocrat). Though one can find enough supporting evidence in more modern histories than Procopius's (J.B. Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire, From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, Vol. II [1923] and Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 2: The Rise of the Saracens and the Foundation of the Western Empire [1911], to name two) of the darker aspects of Justinian's character, one has to search to find a portrait of him as unrelievedly bleak and distasteful as the one that Yarbro here paints. (Although, to be fair, Justinian seems to have been remarkable chiefly for the length and scope of his reign, not for the severity of it, and certainly not for being the first stern Byzantine ruler; as a modern Byzantine historian observed, "university life at the end of the fifth century was beginning to resemble that of Nazi Germany," although "worse was to come," and: "Instances of declared religious toleration during the Byzantine period may be counted on the fingers of one hand"; Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome [London: Phoenix Press, a division of Orion Books Ltd.; ISBN: 1-89880-044-8; 339 pps.]; p. 135 and p. 89.)

The magnitude of the burning of the books (read: scrolls) of the Library of Alexandria -- styled here the Mother and Daughter libraries, although most sources agree that the Mother Library was burned in 391, over 130 years before Justinian was crowned emperor -- is also questionable. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica's [15th ed., Vol. 13; p. 232] article on "Alexandria" states: "In 391 Christians destroyed the Sarapeum of the Ptolemaic cult and what Cleopatra had saved of the Mouseion library.") Yarbro shows Drosos burning "the Mother and all Daughter Libraries with the exception of the one Daughter Library devoted to Christian writings" (Yarbro; p. 219) on Epiphany (January 6) in 549, "in order to erase the taint of godlessness more completely from the world." While I have no trouble in believing that Justinian, who essentially promulgated a beta version of the Inquisition, could have issued such orders, as Yarbro has him do here, I am somewhat surprised that I find no hint that he actually did so in any of the sources previously mentioned; it certainly isn't mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica's glowing article on him in Vol. 6 of its 15th edition (1994; pps. 663-65). The Wikipedia article on the Library of Alexandria has a useful cautionary note: "Although there is a mythology of the burning of the Library at Alexandria, the library may have suffered several fires or acts of destruction over many years."

Oddly, by severely narrowing the scope of her book, Yarbro also severely foreshortens the importance of the two dominant supporting female characters in it: the Empress Theodora and Belisarius's (here rather unlikeable) wife Antonina. Bury does not stint in crediting Theodora's importance to Justinian -- he goes so far as to deem her "more far-seeing and acute than her husband," as regards the importance of the eastern provinces, and the religious dissent therein, and that "she foresaw the future more clearly and grasped the situation more accurately than did her imperial associate," and declares that "as soon as [Theodora] died a decay set in which brought the glorious reign to a sad close" (The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 2; "Chapter II: Justinian's Government in the East" [no page numbers are available, as this is the Kindle edition]) -- which makes it all the more remarkable that an avowedly feminist writer such as Yarbro should do so. (The main role that Yarbro credits Theodora with is as a governor to Justinian's wilder caprices; once she dies, his paranoia and intransigence are rampant, doubtlessly encouraged by various unnamed self-serving and sycophantic courtiers.)

While A Flame in Byzantium follows the Saint-Germain books proper in the low-key, mostly off-camera treatment of the supernatural elements, it differs from them in the presentation of Olivia's sexuality: while Saint-Germain's undisputed masculinity allows him a certain latitude in which he can be a softer and more generous lover than is the wont for much of the places and times that Yarbro places him in, Olivia must necessarily have an even tougher time than Saint-Germain in finding a suitable -- wholly open and giving -- lover to sustain her in her undead life. Blood does play a part in keeping Yarbro's vampires alive, but for them to truly thrive, to rise above the status of a bloody-handed revenant (as Saint-Germain himself was for at least a millennium), they must needs take and give emotional nourishment, as is most commonly (but not so commonly, for all of that) found during the course of sexual congress. Accordingly, Olivia here finds herself the recipient of a "pump n' dump" encounter, which for her has the added insult of containing all the empty calories of a Big Buford. (This raises a question that Yarbro doesn't answer here: since she's established that male vampires are impotent, it follows that female vampires suffer from a de facto clitoridectomy; but one can't help but wonder, if one is of a certain mindset, if female vampires are likewise unable to lubricate. Granted, many women in southern Africa have to endure "dry sex" on account of the men's dislike for a moist vagina, as Mark Schoofs reported in Part 5 ["Death and the Second Sex"] of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on AIDS in Africa for The Village Voice [Schoofs notes, "Research shows that dry sex causes vaginal lacerations and suppresses the vagina's natural bacteria, both of which increase the likelihood of HIV infection. And some AIDS workers believe the extra friction makes condoms tear more easily."]; but, still: ouch.)

The other noted difference of A Flame in Byzantium from the Saint-Germain books is the relative (enforced, it must be allowed) passivity of Olivia's character, as compared to Saint-Germain's: because Olivia simply cannot act directly (or, owing to her association with Belisarius, indirectly), she is essentially that most hated trope of popular entertainment: the helpless female victim. That this is her story and she can't even act in it is nearly as frustrating to the reader as it is to Olivia herself. A Flame in Byzantium is, in short, a most unsatisfactory read, one of the worst of all of the Saint-Germain-related books that I've thus far read. While Yarbro does manage to convey the pervasive terror, distrust, and isolation of mid-6th century Constantinople (an atmosphere that preceded Justinian; see, for example, Mango, p. 94) that would become all-too-familiar to denizens of the latter half of the 20th century, the climax of her narrative -- the torching of countless volumes of "heretical" and "blasphemous" scrolls contained in the libraries of Alexandria -- occurs a little over halfway through the book; the rest unfolds as half-demented fumblings in the dark: even Olivia's being arrested by the office of the Censor is shown to be more of a grasping at straws on the part of that office, an attempt to support Justinian's suspicion of Belisarius, as well as an attempt to show itself as being a capable and productive agent of Justinian's will, than an actual animus against Olivia herself (excepting of course the ongoing animus of Constantinople towards all things Roman, even as Justinian and Belisarius sought to reintegrate Rome and Italy as a whole back into the Empire's territory).

I most likely won't rush to read the other, out of print, and unowned-by-me, books in the Olivia trilogy (Crusader's Torch [1989] and A Candle for d'Artagnan [1994]); the Saint-Germain books themselves contain more than enough shortcomings and, usually, greater pleasures, for me to willingly settle for a lesser iteration of them. ( )
  uvula_fr_b4 | Oct 13, 2013 |
In A.D. 545, when Rome is sacked, Olivia Clemens, a wealthy Roman citizen, flees to Constantinople. Accustomed to liberal Roman ways, Olivia chafes under the restrictions of Constantinople's narrow society; as a foreigner and a thinking woman she finds herself victim of an Inquisition-like plot. ( )
  amarynt | Jul 27, 2010 |
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for RICHARD CHRISTIAN MATHESON for forty-two excellent reasons and one to grow on
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Hail to the General Belisarius on the Feast of the Holy Spirit in the Lord's Year 545.
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