The High City

by Cecelia Holland

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The High City by Cecelia Holland Raef first sees the high city "half-visible in the haze.... A dome shone golden in the sunset, or it might have been the setting sun shining on a cloud.... Then his heart leapt, and he realized, That is Constantinople." Before glimpsing the city, he must survive a shipwreck and a battle. The High City is #5 in Holland's "Soul Thief" series, but readers are plunged into its world with such immediacy, there's no need to have read the earlier novels. "Raef put his hands on the oar, its grip wrapped in frayed rope, and a shock went up through his arms. He felt the sea rise under him like a monster coming out of the deep."

Raef finds the surges of psychic awareness that occasionally visit him more annoying than useful. Mourning a comrade's death in distant Kiev, making a roundabout journey he hopes will lead back, eventually, to his more distant homeland, he has thrown his lot in with Greek-speaking shipmates who think him slow-witted because he doesn't understand their language. In Constantinople, he arrives as an accidental and unwilling celebrity among people even more alien. The custom of performing obeisance to the emperor disgusts him as much as the city's magnificence awes him. Without formally joining the imperial contingent of Varangian warriors whose language he understands, he makes friends among them, falls in with their life and finds himself inadvertently in service to Emperor Basil II. He also falls in love with a woman's eyes, in which he sees "a desperate, aimless longing, a shimmering desire."

The High City puts readers in the midst of tenth-century Constantinople. The characters can seem emotionally blunted, because they take for granted a level of brutality and risk that would make most modern Westerners breathless with anxiety. At peak moments, though, like a near escape from death or an unexpected gift of love, readers will share the characters' feelings all the more intensely because of the almost tangible realism of this novel. (2009, 320 pages)

More about The High City at Powell's Books or

The High City appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels in Holland's "Soul Thief" series:

#1: The Soul Thief (2002). More info
#2: The Witches' Kitchen (2004). More info
#3: The Serpent Dreamer (2005). More info
#4: Varanger (2008). More info

Other novels set in early medieval Constantinople:

Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw (1988), about a silk weaver who discovers a plot is afoot to overthrow Emperor Theodosius II in fifth-century Constantinople. More info

A Flame in Byzantium by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (1987), about a female vampire in sixth-century Constantinople. More info

The Lady for Ransom by Alfred Duggan (1953), about an eleventh century Norman mercenary serving in the Byzantine army. More info

Nonfiction about Basil II and Constantinople's military:

Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025) by Catherine Holmes (2006). More info

The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer by Paul Stephenson (2003).
More info

Byzantium at War by John Haldon (2002). More info

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