I’ve read a number of Cecilia Holland’s novels, and in The High City I’m still marveling at what a good writer she is. She starts that novel with about 50 pages of description, which is unusual, but she brings it off.
Not that she can’t do dialogue. Her dialogue is usually truncated, hinting at more than it overtly reveals, and primarily between males. Her protagonists and characters are usually male, though not always, which made me wonder about her.
Mary Renault, the novelist who wrote about ancient Greece, and sympathetically about the homosexual mileu of that time, turned out to be a lesbian, as I’d suspected (which didn’t stop me from particularly admiring her work, with some exceptions). Holland wrote mostly about men, often about men at war, and prominent female characters were relatively rare in her work. She wrote one science fiction novel quite a few years ago, in which a number of the characters were black, and my meditation teacher at the time (himself black) said she must have hung around black people a lot, since she portrayed them as starting fights intuitively (according to what they felt) rather than logically (according to overt behavior).
So I’m guessing she’s had a fairly adventurous life. I seem to have been wrong about her orientation, though, as the blurb on the book says she gave up writing for a long time to raise three daughters, before starting again. She doesn’t seem to have lost any of her abilities.
The protagonist in this novel is a Viking from Ireland, recently from Kiev (the story is set in the 10th century AD) who comes to Constantinople, where a number of his friends have been serving in the army. He’s shy of taking service there himself, and is something of an instinctive democrat. He doesn’t care to be submissive or obedient.
This has the potential to get him in trouble, and does. Near the beginning of the story he has disabled some catapaults, which enables the force for whom his friends fight to win a battle, and now he and his friends are being honored. He doesn’t like the way the Empress looks condescend-ingly at him and the others, and calls her a nasty name. Then he has to run.
Things quickly become more complicated. There’s a civil war going on between a man whose father had been emperor, and two brothers whose father had also been emperor. One brother, to whom the empress is married, is content to live the high life and take care of the ritual side of being emperor. The other brother does the fighting. The empress is vastly ambitious, and dislikes the fighting emperor, who likes her no better. When her husband shows no ambition commensurate with hers, she runs off to the other “emperor”, who imprisons her, instead of welcoming her. The protagonist is sent to rescue her.
Despite his dislike of her behavior towards the Vikings and him, he has been attracted by her passion, and makes love with her after rescuing her. He’s startled to find her scheming to make him emperor, and feels she has broken the connection between the two of them.
The fighting emperor is Basil, possibly the greatest of the Byzantine emperors, or the last of the great emperors, or both. He’s had to fight for everything he has, which hasn’t made him an entirely likeable character. At one point he wonders if there’s any precedent for putting a woman’s eyes out, because of his dislike for the empress. There’s plenty of precedent for putting men’s eyes out: within the royal family parents sometimes did that to their children, and vice versa, while Basil would later be remembered for doing that to 15,000 Bulgars he had defeated, leaving each hundredth man with one eye so he could lead the others home. Constantinople is arguably the greatest city in the world at the time (with possible exceptions in India or China), but in its way may be more brutal than what it calls the “barbarians”.
Renaissance Italy might be parallel here: far ahead of the rest of Europe in arts and letters, but no more gentle than any of its neighbors. Civil-ization seems to mean more aggressive competition rather than less, with emphasis on “aggressive”. Maybe there’s something to be said for living in more “barbaric” circumstances, though it’s difficult to say how much. One scientist or historian thinks that humans have been gradually growing less violent, though you wouldn’t think so to look at recent history. But his thought is that we disapprove of certain kinds of violence more than we used to, like genocide in particular and murder in general. Maybe that’s what this novel shows.