The year is 1272 A.D. and the setting is Byzantium during the twilight years of its existence. Sixty-eight years earlier, the city was sacked and has since worked itself back into prominence. Byzantium is once again in danger as they are surrounded on all sides by the Ottomans, Saladin and his infidels, a horde of barbarian tribes, and the mighty Venetian Empire.
Amid this stressful situation is a murder that is featured in the novel’s prologue. A respected man named Bessarion is killed, allegedly by two young men named Antoninus and Justinian. What makes this so shocking is the fact that all three were extremely adverse to any talk of a proposed union between the Byzantine Empire and Rome. With heavy pressure being placed upon them from all religious sectors -- particularly the Papal seat of His Holiness, the Pope, in Rome --- Byzantium is in a perilous situation where any decision could mark their doom.
Entering into the early chapters of this novel is the character of Anna “Anastasius” Zarides, who has traveled to Constantinople to investigate Bessarion’s murder. She has much vested interest in finding out the killer’s identity as her brother, Justinian, has been accused of the crime. Passing herself off as a eunuch male and making herself a physician to the wealthy and powerful is no easy task, and one slip-up may cost Anna her life.
With Justinian banished to a distant monastery, Anastasius is flying blind as she traverses the homes of the influential, passing off her herbal remedies in an effort to gain a reputation as a unique healer of those afflicted with different ailments. She eventually has an audience with various local dignitaries, including Bishop Constantine and Emperor Michael. However, there is much strife going on within the church and the state of this empire as Byzantium must decide whether or not to accept proposed changes to the Greek Orthodox faith in order to save itself from invasion and the threatening religious crusade that is rising up from all corners.
With THE SHEEN ON THE SILK, even the most studious reader will require a scorecard as Anne Perry introduces many people from all the different factions and countries. Thankfully, a cast of characters broken down by location is given at the beginning of the book. Be sure to dog-ear this page as you will be referring to it often. Sprinkled throughout are some terrific historical references that include a string of untimely deaths in the Papal lineage and the politics and dealings that come into play when deciding who should next take the heralded Vatican throne. One terrific character introduced along the way is Giuliano, whose journey takes him deep within both sides of the Byzantium/Rome battle. His story is just as engaging as the underlying murder mystery that drives the plot forward.
As the novel progresses, you find that both the fictional and historical characters become equally interesting, and you will forget that you are reading historical fiction. There is so much wheeling-dealing and random plot twists that the scorecard I mentioned earlier will become illegible by the end of the book. Rest assured, though, in the hands of a master plotter like Anne Perry, all will be tied up by the denouement and the outcome should satisfy most readers.
Fans of Perry’s Victorian mystery series (which includes both the Monk and Pitt books) may find this stand-alone effort difficult to get into at first. However, with historical fiction at an unprecedented high in the current world of publishing, Perry and her distinctive writing style make a welcome addition to this genre. As for the book’s unique title, there is a passage early on where a character’s garb is described: “…to make the silk of her robe flutter and shine in the light. The sheen changed color from russet to gold and back again, deceiving the eye, firing the imagination.” I found this a fairly prophetic description of the many alliances and relationships placed within this ambitious novel.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 24, 2011