Customer Reviews: Anna of Byzantium (Laurel-Leaf Books)
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on March 19, 2007
This story by Ms. Barrett is a good, but seriously flawed fictional account of the life of Anna Comnenus, a Byzantine princess during the medieval era. For those who like fiction with no connection to reality, (and the plethora of fantasy titles, sci-fi and other `historical fiction' tampering with the past on the market today, is a pretty good indication of such!) this is a noble effort, that comes very close to the real thing, but fails at the very point at which it could have made a good novel, a great one. The author's very good pacing of her storyline, her evocation of some of the elements of a Greco-Roman society, are all well executed- it is clear she is a respected writer (the American Library Association gave it awards, as did Booklist and Bulletin).

But the reality of an [Greek] Orthodox culture and the suffusing of that faith in an overtly Christian realm that endured for over 1000 years, are completely missing in Barrett's novel- as are the realities of how deeply intertwined the Christianity of the Apostles and the Greek culture's dependence on them would have more than deeply influenced not only a royal such as Princess Comnena, but the entire court, far more than Barrett envisioned.

The plot strikes me more as a `junior Lucretia Borgia' than a Byzantine monarch's first-born heir. What I mean is this: the intricacies of plotting, revenge, murder, poisoning and all the rest that were a hallmark of the Borgias- and Italian, Papal culture (including some Popes whose offices were bought and paid for by Borgia money!) are in far shorter supply in the Byzantine records, and are by and large totally foreign to an Orthodox phronema [mindset]. Not that they did not exist, mind you! But Barrett's confusion of Roman Catholic and Orthodox prayers, sacramentals, liturgy, and Weltanschauung are apparent to an informed reader, and all of this is tacitly glossed over, downplayed, or clearly absent [by omission rather than commission in the book?] which confuses an Orthodox reader seeking material for his children to have them learn their own history, and points out how such organizations such as the ALA and Booklist are woefully ignorant of world cultures, even though they preach `multiculturalism.' Such obfuscation is made even more obfuscated because of the cover art on the paperback edition, which alludes to some `inner sanctity' of the Princess, showing her with an iconic nimbus of sainthood, that NEVER appears in her actions, or in the pages of the book, nor can be gleaned from the history of the real ruler!

Not once that I recall, is anyone found praying before an iconostasis, a foundational element of ANY truly Orthodox culture, nor are icons even mentioned! Nor is there any mention, allusion, or talk of one of the most astounding events of this era, namely the actions of the Roman schismatics, when Cardinal Humbert, acting as the Pope's henchman, came to Byzantium (Constantinople) with the `anathema' for the Orthodox, over their non-use of the `filioque' [`and the son'] clause in the Nicene Creed - an addition which the West inserted without canonical authority, and then accused the Byzantines of `omitting'- and it is this ONE event, which started the entire break between East and West Rome, which has yet to be healed, over one thousand years later!!! This is not a minor point in dealing with a fictionalized account of Byzance in the year 1100- it would be as if one were to write a fictional story of Lincoln, and not mention the fact that, under his rule, the Civil War took place! This is an example of pure Western hubris, and wilfull ignorance of another, equally valid culture!

Modern writers are all seemingly afflicted with a skewed, adolescent, egotistical temperocentric view of history, [one that is stuck in only THIS century, and THIS era, as `normative' for all of history] and this is increasingly apparent in children's fiction- see my reviews of other historical fiction. Barrett's book is a good look into ego, pride, lack of Christian charity, and the machinations of power, but as a historical novel of either an Orthodox princess, land, or culture, it is severely lacking. Orthodox parents would especially need to do some `caveat emptor' before giving this novel to their children as a `good look' at their own culture.
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on October 9, 2001
Anna of Byzantium tells the story of the rising and falling fortunes of Anna Comnena, a princess of the Byzantine Empire, and heir to the throne. The plot includes friendship, betrayal, power struggles, an assassination attempt, love, manipulation, and sibling rivalry, and is a fascinating glimpse into the political and family turmoil that Anna may have been caught up in.
There were a lot of things about this book that were wonderful. I really enjoyed the author taking on the challenge of writing a book about the Byzantine Empire. I don't know of any other children's or teens' authors who have used this setting, and it's a unique and interesting glimpse into life in this era. The plot twists kept me reading to see how everything would turn out.
I had very mixed feelings about the characterization, though. Some of the characters were really well drawn and elaborated, and I really appreciated the author's ability to portray the ways that both positive and negative character traits could be intertwined in the same person. On the other hand, though, there were several characters that were key to the plot but were not well characterized at all. For example, John, Anna's younger brother, appears as a pretty flat, inept, selfish, weak, and spoiled character throughout most of the book, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of nuancing of his character. At one point in the book however (won't give too much away) his behavior seems pretty strongly contradictory to this, and the historical note at the end of the book describes him in a way that seems inconsistent with both presentations of him. In other words, he seems almost like three different characters in three different times of his life, and there doesn't seem to be any attempt to harmonize these three or portray characteristics that would tie them together or demonstrate gradual development that might have led in that direction eventually. Instead, it feels like he fairly abruptly changed several times, and the reason for these changes are unclear. This is the case for several other characters in the book as well. This left me confused about why some of the events in the plot turned out the way they did. It seemed that the character traits of the key players that might have directed them to act as they did had not been sufficiently developed to support some of their actions. I was left asking, "but why did he do that?" or "what is his motivation here?" and commenting, "it doesn't seem like he would have done that." It seemed that a more thorough and complex characterization of the mixed traits of those characters might have helped the plot fit together more cleanly.
Overall an excellent book and a fascinating look at court life in Byzantium. The unique and interesting aspects of this book definitely override its faults, and I can recommend it to anyone looking for a unique read.
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on June 20, 2011
Though Anna of Byzantium is interesting and well-written, with vivid characters and moving scenes, I do not recommend it. Almost all of the characters act from purely selfish motives, using deceit and any means possible to get their desires, so it is difficult to figure out which side is the "right" side, because neither is fully in the right.
At first it seems clear that Anna's mother is the "good guy" and her grandmother the "bad guy" but, though the grandmother clearly remains wrong, the mother tries to kill her own son and advocates other such measures. Anna herself is a somewhat complex character. As the book is written in first person from her perspective, all of her actions are hotly defended so that, as the reader, I am inclined to pity her and feel her aggrieved, but she is thoroughly selfish, arrogant, and without scruple. She harbors bitterness and hatred towards most people and seems to only sincerely care for her father. The lessons her grandmother teaches her are mainly in how to deceive and manipulate the rulers of other kingdoms to her will.
Much of the story is very sad, and evil frequently triumphs, even in the end. As the book is not historically accurate, there is no redeeming quality.
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Anna Comnena thought she would achieve immortality as Empress of Byzantium, but when her father named her younger brother, John as his heir, she was forced to change her career plans.

This fictional biography casts light on a profoundly neglected corner of our past: the history of the Eastern Roman Empire, founded by Constantine the Great in 330 AD and finally brought to an end by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The heroine of this book, born in 1083 AD, was the eldest child of the Emperor Alexius I, and received an education as befitted a future empress. As a child, Anna was bethrothed to Constantine Ducas, a distant relative of her mother. When he died, she eventually married Nikephoros Bryennios and they had four children together (not in this book, though.)

Anna's paternal grandmother, Anna Dalassena was the effective administrator of the Empire during the long absences of Alexius I in war campaigns. The old woman was constantly at odds with her daughter-in-law Irene (Anna Comnena's mother) and assumed total responsibility for the upbringing and education of her granddaughter.

This book characterizes the grandmother as a ruthless, tyrannical, paranoid old woman who had a falling out with her ambitious, rather unlikeable granddaughter and caused her to be disinherited.

The `real' Anna Comnena says this of her grandmother in her "Alexiad:" "My father reserved for himself the waging of wars against the barbarians, while he entrusted to his mother the administration of state affairs, the choosing of civil servants, and the fiscal management of the empire's revenues and expenses. One might perhaps, in reading this, blame my father's decision to entrust the imperial government to the gyneceum [women's quarters]. But once you understood the ability of this woman, her excellence, her good sense, and her remarkable capacity for hard work, you would turn from criticism to admiration."

This leads me to believe that "Anna of Byzantium" might be mischaracterizing the old woman, and misleading its readers as to the real cause of Anna's disinheritance--if indeed, she was even in line to inherit the throne after her brother, John was born (she was actually the eldest of nine children).

Nevertheless, this is an interesting look at the Byzantine court and its politics, through the eyes of an intelligent, curious teen-ager, and Anna really did plot with her mother, Irene to either disinherit or murder her brother, John. I hope this book sparks interest in the "Alexiad," Anna Comnena's fascinating history of her father's reign.
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on October 21, 2012
I first read this book about twelve years ago, and since 2004 have taught it every year to my sixth graders (this year included). It's a great read, and few of my students have found it anything but interesting. It is a complex book, and a dark book, but a fascinating book, which, although it has some factual innacuracies, is hard to put down. It also concerns a subject which gets little play in American schools, and in the middle grade market.I recommend it hightly to both young adult and adult.
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on January 20, 2014
I don't normally read Young Adult literature, but I chose this book as part of a class assignment, as I enjoy historical fiction and haven't read anything from this area or time period.

I read this book in 3 hours! It was a very nice,easy read (for an adult) and I'm sure children would enjoy it. You really feel for Anna and what she is going through. There were parts of the story that were a bit weak but nothing that someone couldn't get through. There isn't a lot known from this period, but you learned most of the background information needed during the reading.

There are some historical inaccuracies, but the author addresses them at the end instead of trying to pass off her book as the truth. I understand why they're there- they simply wouldn't have fit with the story in the time frame necessary for her book.


The only part that really upset me was the scene when we father made John his new heir. I felt that this scene was particularly sudden and weak. It would have been from Anna's point of view, but I still felt like the author should have developed this scene a bit more.

At the end, we are told that while we've hated John during the whole book, we're supposed to like him at the end because he became a great ruler who was loved by his people. It would have been nice to see SOME redeeming quality earlier in the book other than allowing Anna to go to a convent instead of killing her.
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on April 24, 2000
Born in the royal purple chamber of the palace, Anna Comnena was the first born of Byzantine Emperor Alexius, and therefore his heir. She was a princess, and had maids who waited on her hand and foot. As she grew up and matured, she was taught the art of diplomacy by her grandmother. She was also taught how to battle when diplomacy didn't work and how to compromise when she was tired of battling. Her grandmother was a very manipulating woman who wanted power for herself. Anna, though, was not the type of puppet her grandmother wanted her to be. The Emperor always listened to his mother, and she, Anna's grandmother, had complete power over him. One of the most important moments in Anna's story is when her grandmother makes the Emperor change his mind about who should be the future ruler of the empire... She was very beautiful, but behind her beauty there was determination. Perhaps, if she hadn't been so determined in trying to show her independence, she would have been become Empress of Byzantium.
There was a stormy relationship between Anna and her grandmother. Because of their equally strong determination, they both ended up hating each other. Anna hated her grandmother because she was always manipulating and conspiring, and all she wanted to do was to take over the Empire for herself. Her grandmother hated Anna for exactly the opposite reason, because she always told the truth, and would not let herself be turned into her puppet. This relationship was extremely tense, and gave me goose bumps any time both of them were together.
The conflict throughout the whole book was thus between Anna and her grandmother. With all the hatred between them, they were always trying to find ways to humiliate to each other... As you read the book you are both anxious and frightened just by thinking of their next move.
The author keeps the story constantly moving forward with many different exciting plots. Anna's grandmother teaches her how to be the ruler of an Empire while her father is away at war. Anna then realizes that her grandmother wants power for herself, and is only using Anna as her puppet. When Anna's father comes back from the war, the grandmother makes him change his mind about who should be the heir. When Anna's father dies, the throne is passed on to her little brother, with his grandmother at his side. Anna makes an attempt to kill her brother, but is betrayed and banished to a convent in the faraway mountains from where she will never be able to take revenge. Anna is visited by friends, who make her finally forget the misery of the past years and open a whole new world to her eyes.
I learned from the book that you have to resist being hypocritical, untrustworthy and unjust, because it only increases your problems. Even if it makes you happy at that moment, sooner or later it will come back to you, and you will pay for it.
I thought that the entire book was thrilling because something unexpected happened at the end of each chapter that made you want to keep on reading. The relationship between Anna and her grandmother was the main intrigue. The way the story was written made me feel as if I were Anna, rebelling against an outrageously unfair treatment. I sometimes felt like I wanted to go up to the grandmother and strangle her. At other times, I felt terribly sorry for Anna as, for example, the time she was betrayed by her tutor and was banished.
The ending was perhaps a happier one then in reality, with Anna meeting her friends and getting one of her most cherished belongings - the book about her father -- back.
Tracy Barrett is a great author. By her descriptions you can imagine what she is describing almost perfectly. The way she describes every person's character makes it seem as if they are alive. Out of all of her great writing skills, I like best the way she describes Anna's emotions and makes you share them. She makes everything have a purpose, and have its own story, every move seems as if to teach a lesson. With all the descriptions, she makes the reader feel love and hate, sadness and confusion. Tracy Barrett is a truly good writer.
I loved the book, it was full of interesting events that made me either laugh or cry. The book made me feel many emotions. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a really good book!
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on January 16, 2015
Anna of Byzantium is a very well-written story of a young princess who chooses to play the game of thrones and loses (but, fortunately, does not die, contrary to George R.R. Martin's creed). Anna herself is the narrator, giving us her recollections from her convent exile years later. The style evokes The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart and the story, as such, is well told, even though Anna herself is neither sympathetic nor very likeable.

However, as historical fiction Anna of Byzantium misses the mark. The best historical fiction introduces readers to long ago and far away lands and causes a reader to want to learn more. Very little of Byzantine life or history is presented here; for example, there a couple passing references to Frankish knights passing through (i.e., the First Crusade), but we learn almost nothing about it. The author took some liberties with the real Anna Comnenus' life and, while I appreciate her acknowledgement of the liberties in an afterword, the changes she made undermine the purpose of a historical novel, especially one geared toward young readers.

Had the story been set in a fictional kingdom, it may have merited four stars. Because it was ostensibly based on a real historical figure, I was tempted to give it only two stars. In the end, three stars seems reasonable.
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on March 19, 2006
This is a fascinating and well written book. Set in the closing decades of the 11th century, in the legendary city of Constantinople, this book covers the life of the Byzantine princess, Anna Comnena. Named as heir to the throne from an early age, she grows up conceited, self-centred and ambitious but not without compassion and a strong sense of moral duty. She is loved by both her parents, but her father, the Emperor Alexius, is a distant figure, ideolised by Anna, but away on campaign so often that her true father figure becomes, subconsiously, her tutor, the eunuch, Simon. Simon is one of the best characters of this book, an intellegent, kind man deeply concerned with the other influences acting on Anna.

And other influences there are. From a young age, her ruthless grandmother, Anna Dalassena, takes Anna (Comnena) on as her pupil in the arts of statecraft. Anna Dalassena is an interesting character, one that the reader despises and yet admires, mirroring Anna's emotions. Anna (Comnena) is a willing, and to her grandmother, perhaps a little too able pupil. Some reveiwers have commented that Anna (Comnena)behaves too ambitiously to be a likeable character. I think that this is completely unfair and untrue; we know the real Anna, the compassionate girl that lies behind the princess, and the fact that she makes ruthless decisions makes us familiarise with how she developes as a human being all the more.

Anna has two siblings (in real life she had several but they were "cut" for simplicity's sake; the book looses nothing from it), a beautiful, kind, fairly intellegent but generally childish sister and a much younger brother. The brother, John, appears to be weak, spiteful and capricous, and Anna views him as naught but a minor annoyance, but in fact, John Comnenus is the greatest deciever of all the nobility.

As Anna grows up, both Simon and her mother become worried as to how Anna Dalassena is corrupting her with her cruelty and dishonesty. However, in the rigid, protocal obsessed Byzantine court, it is difficult for Anna Comnena to change arangements. Her grandmother has had the ear of the Emperor for too many years to be easily detatched. Her only confident is another of the book's best character, her maid, a Turkish slave called (by the Greeks) Sophia. One of Anna's rare moments of compassion is called into play when she rescues Sophia's illicit lover from execution, thus aquiring Sophia's eternal gratitude and friendship, something she will need as the years draw on.

As Anna grows older, she begins to hate her younger brother for his spitefullness and her grandmother for her cruelty. Unfortunately, while she expresses these emotions (admitedly rather vehemently) to Simon, she is overheard by her younger brother, John. Her grandmother, realising that Anna will be no ones puppet when she takes the throne, and believing John will be hers, sides with John, and Alexius is persuaded to promise the throne to John, not Anna, leaving Anna bitter. As time goes on, Alexius falls into illness and John and Anna Dalassena come to dominate the palace. Anna's claustrophobic life becomes ever more unbearable; her betrothed is killed in war (she is then betrothed to another man, a historian Anna does neither dislike nor love) and she is shut out from the library by her brother in a particularly malicous mood and the throne room, left with nothing to do but plan her revenge on the child that has ruined her life...

The book is difficult to do justice to in a review. The characterisation is remarkable, with some characters being truly... for a lack of a better word, lovable, while others are utterely hideous. A lesser writer might have made the enemies of Anna so pathetic that they inspire contempt rather than dislike, but Barrett successfuly gives them enough depth, and success, to be threatening and unpleasant. John's character, critised in some reviews, I actually think was very strong, (I won't give anything away, but remember John is a master manipulator, greater than even Anna Comnena, and, as we find out, the master of the Great Game of politics herself, Anna Dalassena.

The culture of Byzantium is reflected well in this novel, particularly the attitudes to women (which I understand the author has some knoledge in). This adds another layer of depth to the storyline.

I have some small qualms about the historical distortions of this book. There are several; there were actually many more than three Comneni children, Anna actually married Nikephorous Byrrenius and had several children by him, and here assasination attempt on John was actually made when she was around 35, not 15. However, these changes are in fact almost irrelevant; Anna's life as a married woman would have really been remarkably similar - claustrophobic and limited. The one more dubious change is that of John's personality; while I think John's behaviour in the book is perfectly consistent, the fact he was actually a benevolent and kind ruler somewhat belies his behaviour in this book. Barrett is a historian herself, rather than a novelist (you wouldn't guess from the book's quality) so I don't dispute that she knows her stuff, and I accept that it will have been almost impossible to streamline John's character with reality, but it still strikes something of a sour chord. This is, however, my only irritation with Anna of Byzantium, an otherwise fascinating story set in a neglected time period.
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on January 30, 2014
Good writing and excellent choice of subject material and historical detail. The book clearly should have been much longer. The end seems rushed and it would have been interesting to have a more detailed account of Anna's life axxx .. oh don't want to give the plot away away, The writing is strong enough that I definitely will be buying Barrett's next book.
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