Book review: Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead

I really enjoyed this book. It’s set in the 9th century and follows a fictional character designed to be a blend of various historic Irish 353787saints as he travels on a pilgrimage from his monastery in Eire to Byzantium, “The Golden City,” with a gift for the Emperor.

Of course, this is an epic adventure and all does not go as planned. Aiden (the main character) goes through numerous transformations as he is captured or liberated by one group or another and spends time with Vikings, Byzantines and Saracens in his adventures. The pilgrimage may be what draws him from his monastery but in the real world he is drawn into an intricate web of intrigue at the highest levels of Byzantine society.

This book is deeply Christian without being pedantic and has a great sense of humor. A fantastic example of this is where Aiden explains Christianity to his Viking masters. Aiden’s explanation is heartfelt, and genuine, and his audience does not magically become believers, laughing at his attempts to explain things. The bewildered Vikings suggest that a hound dog would make a better god than one who would not defend himself and are baffled that Jesu would not marshal his armies and strike with thunderbolts the vicious Romans. Yet this same conversation is the catalyst for a transformation much later in the book, near the very end, for a number of characters to experience faith in Jesus Christ. The conversation was enjoyable enough that I read it aloud to my wife.

Of course, no work of historical fiction is perfect, and this book is meant to be a good story first, and history second. Though I was not reading with a fine-toothed comb, I’m sure others have or will find mistakes intentional or otherwise in this story. Yet the author seems to have nailed the feel of the period. From the vicious, happy-go-lucky Vikings with their childlike zeal and the noble, but foreign Saracens to the cosmopolitan Byzantines with their political savvy and subtlety and the monks with their simple faith and petty concerns, this book feels like a window into a living, breathing time.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable book which does not require an interest in history or Christianity (though appreciating both of those will enhance the experience.) As I said, I actually read parts aloud I was so taken by it. It is well written, and the main character has been written with a lot of depth (though most of the characters he meets in his travels are flat.) It’s not particularly challenging to get through, and it is a deeply engrossing read.

Highly recommended.

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