Anna of Byzantium
by Tracy Barrett
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The real Anna of Byzantium was the eldest child of a Byzantine emperor. She was bright, and her parents gave her an excellent education. Until her brother John was born, she and the boy her parents intended her to marry were in line to become the next empress and emperor. The novel Anna of Byzantium imagines what it might have been like to grow up believing you would one day be an empress and then have the prize snatched away by a younger brother.
Readers will sympathize with Anna as she tries to please both her pious mother and her scheming, power-hungry grandmother, who often give her conflicting instructions. Anna wins less sympathy with her haughty, sometimes mean behavior to the slaves and servants who work to educate her and make her life comfortable. But though pampered in some ways, Anna too must obey many exotic rules and restrictions. She must bow to her mother, father and grandmother, and sometimes prostrate herself before her father, stretching face down on the floor. She learns to keep secrets. At eleven, when her grandmother declares her a woman and gives her a veil, Anna thinks "what an advantage the veil would be in disguising my emotions."
Many events in the novel happen when Anna is either older or much younger than the historical Anna was when they actually took place. Some important historical events are left out. Anna's younger brother was probably less horrible than in the book, and Anna was probably much more ruthless. But readers gain a strong impression of the strange customs and stranger challenges of life in a Byzantine court. (1999; 209 pages, including an Author's Note separating history from fiction. Recommended for ages 10 and up.)
More about Anna of Byzantium at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Another YA novel set in Byzantium:
The Emperor's Winding Sheet by Jill Paton Walsh (1974), about an English boy who lands in Constantinople after a shipwreck, where the Byzantine emperor adopts him as a good luck charm shortly before the city's fall to the Turks. More info
Nonfiction about Byzantium:
The Alexiad by Anna Comnena (12th century), the history Anna of Byzantium wrote about her father's reign as Emperor of Byzantium. More info
Byzantium by Judith Herrin (2006), written for adults. More info
Anna Komnene and Her Times edited by Thalia Gouma-Peterson (2000), about Anna of Byzantium; written for adults. Amazon.com
The Alexiad, an English translation of Anna Comnena's book about her father, online at the Fordham University website
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