Book Review: Anna of Byzantium

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

Anna of Byzantium is Tracy Barrett’s young adult historical fiction account of Anna Komnene, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I, now known for her medical practice, hospital administration and historical scholarship, particularly an epic account of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. Compressed for time and characters, the novel moves quickly yet presents an appealing account of Komnene’s life, from royal status as heir to her father’s throne to devastating loss and betrayal.

Her misfortune advances from several directions, so the book’s own blurb revealing her removal doesn’t ruin the story, because getting there is an important part of the plot. As events develop and occur, readers get hooked into the tale and Barrett’s savvy understanding of when to drop the hammer and when not, keeps our exhalations of relief weighted as we continue to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Crusaders Council via Wikimedia Commons

Because Komnene—Anglicized to Comnena in the novel—is born less than two decades following 1066, her story gives us insight into what occurs in other parts of the world as England reels from a devastating invasion. The author skillfully fills in details of Comnena’s region throughout the book, and her brevity provides quite a bit more information than young (or any) readers might realize they are absorbing. Moreover, with extremely strong writing, she does it typically through dialogue or Anna’s own contemplations, which further bring us closer to our protagonist.

Like many authors of historical fiction, Barrett takes liberties, including that relating to her marriage to Nicephorus Bryennius. She addresses this in her author’s note, but doesn’t explain why, which we would have appreciated. The ending also comes rapidly, though it does answer some questions as it links to details of the real Komnene’s history and work. The book’s thematic angles—justice, misrepresentation and even sibling rivalry, amongst others—are ones young adults will relate to even as they recognize the vast differences in their and Comnena’s lives, and very well may inspire many readers to reach out for more on this intriguing historical figure.

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