The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry
I don’t know much about the Byzantine Empire, I have to say. I learned a little about it in high school, but not as much as I learned about other cultures and civilizations. When I stumbled across The Sheen on the Silk in Publishers Weekly, I smiled–a mystery set in the Byzantine Empire with a heroine disguised as a eunuch? That sounded like a great way to initially acquaint myself with the Byzantine Empire. But The Sheen on the Silk soon revealed that, while it’s flawlessly researched, it shouldn’t be the first novel you read set in the Byzantine Empire.
Set in the 13th century, The Sheen on the Silk nominally follows Anna Zarides, a physician from Nicea, as she heads to Constantinople, disguised as a eunuch, in order to prove her twin brother, Justinian, is innocent in the murder of a very important man. But the murder charges against Justinian are soon overshadowed by not only the threat of a much-hated union between the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, but also by the threat of the crusading ambitions of Charles of Anjou.
The Sheen on the Silk is downright massive in scope. Perry helpfully provides a cast list at the beginning, although it ends up being mostly useless, since several important characters don’t even appear on it. (Esaias, whose presence is stressed as very important, was missing from the list.) Chapters switch perspective with no rhyme or reason–characters can often either get two or three chapters in a row in the spotlight, or not be heard from for pages and pages. There’s also the occasional awkward shift in perspective. For the most part, The Sheen on the Silk is written in limited third person, but sometimes it just jumps in the middle of a chapter to another character, often without even a line break. It’s very awkward. It’s also quite slow. I appreciated that at first, since Anna’s quest shouldn’t be an easy one, but because of the various stories being juggled and despite the often odd leaps ahead in time, it can often drag. The pace does pick up once there’s a major threat of invasion to Constantinople, but that’s towards the very end.
It’s also much too broad. While the main plot initially appears to be Anna’s quest to prove her brother innocent, the political machinations of Constantinople take center stage for much of the novel. Picking one or the other would have made The Sheen on the Silk a better novel, although the two plots are linked. There’s also too many subplots, including Anna’s love interest dealing with his heritage (interesting, but simply too much on top of everything else), their love story (which grants us a cheesy ending), and two papal legates who shuttle between Rome and Constantinople to try and force the Emperor’s hand into a union with the Roman Catholic Church. I hesitate to use the word bloated, since everything is resolved, but there’s just too much.
The Sheen on the Silk could have been saved if the characters were engaging and intriguing. Most of the characters involved in the political machinations plot are, especially the formidable Zoe Chrysaphes, a woman in her seventies fueled by vengeance and a desire to save Constantinople no matter what the cost–she’s the best character in the novel, in my opinion. But Zoe is a villain. Our heroine is Anna, and she’s quite disappointing. She’s fairly bland, is much too obvious as she attempts to seek information about her brother and his circle, and she often whines about having to disguise herself as a eunuch while she would much rather be able to present herself as a woman. This particularly bugged me. Intellectually, I know that a woman in the twelfth century wouldn’t be allowed to treat men, but Anna gathers most of her information from her female patients anyway and we rarely see how pretending to be a eunuch is beneficial for Anna beyond some protection on the street. I often wished I could read more about Zoe than Anna, especially during a chapter where Zoe and a former flame square off, not sure if they’re going to kill each other or sleep together–a moment much more exciting than anything Anna does. The rest of the cast is quite suitable, but spread a bit thin.
This isn’t to say that it’s all bad. Perry’s imagery is quite lovely, especially the connection Anna’s love interest makes between his home of Venice and Constantinople, although she makes absolutely sure everyone gets the metaphor of the titular sheen on the silk quite early. I did learn a great deal about daily life in the Byzantine Empire, and it was interesting to read after reading The Sultan’s Seal, which is set in the same city hundreds of years in the future. Perry also tries to make an important point about eunuchs as a third gender, which works at first, but sort of falls to the wayside at the end, especially when Anna’s love interest discovers she’s a woman and apparently needs no time at all to adjust to the fact that she’s not male. But if you’re looking for a good, engaging book set in the Byzantine Empire, this isn’t it.
Bottom line: The Sheen on the Silk is bursting at the seams with too many plots and too many characters. Even the fascinating setting of the Byzantine Empire can’t redeem the bland heroine, slow pace, and awkward organization. If you want a book set in the Byzantine Empire, reach for something else.
I rented this book from the public library.