Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It is a fairly open secret that H.N. Turteltaub, the author of Justinian, is really Harry Turtledove, author of the Worldwar and Videssos series. While Turtledove has based much of his previous writing on his study of Byzantine history, Justinian is his first novel which does not have a science fictional or fantastic twist to it. Rather, Justinian is a straight historical novel written as an autobiography of the Byzantine emperor Justinian II (685-695 & 705-711).
Justinian comes across as an arrogant, self-centered man whose redeeming qualities seem to be limited to piety. As such, he does not come across as particularly sympathetic to the modern audience. Turteltaub, therefore, has elected to break up Justinian's monologue with short interpolations by Myakes, Justinian's most trusted bodyguards, now blinded and living in a monastery where the monk Elpidios is reading Justinian's manuscript to him. In this, Justinian's format is similar to the one used by Gore Vidal when he wrote of an earlier Byzantine emperor, Julian (1964).
Because Turteltaub is writing about an historical figure, he can assume that the general details of Justinian's life are known, or at least accessible, to his readers. He, therefore, can foreshadow later events in Justinian's reign without fear of giving away his plot. The surprise comes in how Turteltaub presents the events and the spin he places on them. Turteltaub uses this device to good effect. While the character Justinian is detestable in nearly every way, by hinting at his future, Turteltaub ensures that the reader will continue the novel to discover how adversity will strike the emperor down and how he will rise above it.
The short sections in which Myakes takes the reader outside Justinian's head also help to alleviate Justinian's vileness. Although Myakes only occasionally completely disapproves of Justinian's actions, he rarely gives voice to that disapproval. Myakes comes across as a loyal (if, perhaps, misguided) servant who has learned to live with his and Justinian's mistakes, unlike Justinian who never seems to learn from earlier actions and events.
Because of Justinian's egotism, Turteltaub rarely gives a complete view of any character, Justinian's own self-image all too frequently getting in the way when he is dealing with popes, patriarchs, khagans and other individuals. Myakes' comments help to round out those characters (as well as Justinian's), but there remains a certain detachment about those characters.
Perhaps the biggest drawback is the lack of a map of either Constantinople or the area around the Black Sea. Justinian knows the region he discusses so well, the reader is, on occasion, left without a clear idea of the spacial relationships between the locations he is describing. Similarly, while Turteltaub provides a partial list of historical figures in his afterword, he does not provide a complete list of dramatis personae. Not really a flaw, but one would have made a nice addition to the book.
Turteltaub does a good job presenting the events of Justinian's reigns, although there are some aspects of Justinian's personality which could have been examined in greater detail. Turteltaub presents Justinian as a truly pious and devout man. While in his own time, these qualities could exist without contradition within an individual who performs the acts Justinian did, in the present, they seem hypocritical at best. A deeper examination of these aspects of Justinian's character would have made for a more philosophical novel.
On the whole, Turteltaub presents an interesting period of history in detail without lapsing into polemic. The novel will continue to appeal to his readers who enjoy the details of his alternate history as well as the trappings of his fantasy novels while at the same time broadening his scope to historical fiction readers.
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