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Chelsea Yarbro

Flame in Byzantium
Tor, 1987


caveats: for mature students due to sexuality, bedroom scenes, rape scene plot: adventures of a female vampire in Byzantium during Justinian's reign The author calls this a "historical horror novel," a sequel to her 1979 Blood Games. , which featured the Count St. Germain, who loved the heroine and transformed her into a vampire during the reign of Nero. The action commences 500 years later, when Belisarius is sent by Justinian to retake Italy from the forces of Totila. Jealous courtiers take advantage of Belisarius' absence to poison Justinian's already paranoid mind. These plotters advise Justinian not to send Belisarius more forces because the general will use the army to overthrow his emperor. Belisarius nevertheless attempts to follow Justinian's directives with inadequate men and supplies in an area where the natives are reluctant to aid any army. When his officers complain of the Emperor's policy, Belisarius rebukes them and affirms his loyalty to Justinian. In 545 C.E., Atta Olivia Clemens, the heroine, offers Belisarius and his officers the use of her villa while he plans his campaign to defend Rome from Totila. Captain Drosos, one of Belisarius' officers, becomes Olivia's lover. When she decides that this area is too dangerous for a single woman, Belisarius offers to sponsor her in Byzantium. Once Olivia arrives in Byzantium, she discovers that a woman in this city has much less freedom than in Rome. In addition to a male sponsor, she must obtain the blessing of a "pope" (priest). Because she follows "Roman" customs, does not seek a husband, and is sponsored by Belisarius, Olivia is spied upon by the Censor's office. By incriminating her, the enemies of Belisarius hope to discredit him in the eyes of Justinian. Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, invites Olivia to her palace and offers to find her a husband. Because of Antonina, Olivia meets Theodora who advises her to be careful. Shortly after this meeting in the Hippodrome, Theodora dies and Justinian becomes even more paranoid. He wishes to purge "Roman" elements from Byzantium; the author states that the Byzantines viewed anything Roman as inferior and their religious beliefs as heretical. Captain Drosos is posted to Alexandria where he is ordered to burn the library. This action upsets him and he becomes even more disgusted when he discovers that it was Justinian himself who ordered the fires, not one of his courtiers. Drosos pulls away from Olivia when he returns to Byzantium and is later sent to the frontier where he perishes in a battle. The intrigue is presented well; in chilling dialogs the author shows how the enemies of Belisarius suborn his slaves and his friends in their attempts to prove treason where none exists. Simones, the head slave of the general's household, agrees to spy on his master, and goes so far as to poison Antonina. Suspicion for the death of Antonina falls on Olivia. When Belisarius discovers the truth, he is offered the terrible choice of saving Olivia or having Simones put to death. I see parallels between Olivia and Belisarius, each trying to retain their sanity and honor in a crazy world of illusion and deception. I am not familiar enough with this period to judge the accuracy of the novel, although I did read in another source that Antonina survived Belisarius. I also think that the author compressed various events in order to fit the time frame of her novel. The author's note at the beginning states, "Paranoia was not so much a neurosis as a means of survival." The author reminds the reader that historians of the time were political officers, employed by the Court Censor; therefore, contemporary records are questionable. Much information is not available or disputed. She used the Secret Histories of Procopius (although biased), merchants' records, military reports, and letters and journals. She succeeded in giving this reader a vivid idea of the ambiance and fear-ridden politics of the time. The meaning of the word "Byzantine" comes alive in this novel. -Roz Harper 8/99

- Roz Harper, 8/1/1999

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