So, despite taking a module entitled “The Crusades” in my second year of university, I ashamedly admit the finer points of each crusade has faded in my mind. I was therefore excited to begin reading ‘The Empress’ by Meg Clothier, and hoped it would quickly jog my memory whilst I lost myself in a historical fiction induced bliss.
Starting in 1179, the book follows the life of Agnes, daughter of King Louis VII of France and her journey from to Princess of France to Byzantine Empress. She faces several revolutions and only by her cunning is she able to stay alive.
I enjoyed the way in which Meg broke down our Western views of medieval royalty from the viewpoint of a teenage Agnes, by bringing to life the splendour and magnificent culture of the Greeks. She has really done her research in terms of hierarchies, phrases, manners and rituals, bringing the shimmering sight of ancient Constantinople firmly into focus.
Clothier expertly explores the subtleties of female politics and ambition, reminding us that whilst not able to occupy the titles of power, that did not mean that women had none. Agnes is naturally the prime example, using her growing political knowledge to survive seven emperors.
The other main character of the book is the son of a Byzantine general, Theodore Branas, and whilst I spotted fairly early on that he would end up being Agnes’ main love interest, that didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy watching their romance unfold, and I rooted for them the whole way through, despairing when all seemed lost…
Clothiers’ scene setting is wonderfully executed and I found myself transported several times to medieval Constantinople, whether that were in the extravagant rooms of the Blanchernai Palace, with the scents from exotic flowers drifting on the wind that ripples the silk hangings, or listening to the shrieks of men dying bloody deaths on the battlefield, with the stench of sweat and despair all around (although, that could have been the guy on the train who hadn’t showered…)!
Clothier’s has, as with all historical fiction, made some embellishments and altered the true course of events, such as Agnes’ age and the exact events of each revolution, but as she admits in her afterword, there is actually very little written on Empress Anna or Theodore Branas. However, I am perfectly happy to accept her fictionalised versions.
To me the true mark of a good book is how drawn in I am into the character’s world, and during the day I found myself feeling unsettled and uncertain for no reason, until I realised it was because Agnes had been busy trying to save her neck from another maniacal emperor, or from an influx of Frankish armies. “The Empress” is well worth reading and I am already adding Clothier to my list of favourite historical authors.