The Last Byzantine: Confessions of a Would-Be Messiah
Outskirts Press (2009)
Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar for Reader Views (8/09)
“The Last Byzantine” is one of the most original and fascinating novels I have read in a long time. Many years ago, I read Lew Wallace’s “The Prince of India” (written in 1893) about the Fall of Constantinople and the Wandering Jew’s efforts to explain and create a compromise between Christianity and Islam. I was continually reminded of that novel as I read this one. I also felt at times, through the tone of the main character’s voice, that I was reading an early Gothic historical novel such as William Godwin’s “St. Leon” (1799) or Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826). Ken McClellan has that classic and authentic style to his writing. I could not believe the detail he provided about Constantinople and the other places the main character visits in the fifteenth century, and how he wove it all so effortlessly into the book so that I was never being hit over the head with a history lesson but instead truly seeing places and events through the main character’s eyes. The numerous excellent illustrations also add to this flavor of authenticity.
The story is quite simple—there really is not much in the way of a plot, but the writing style is so intoxicating that it hardly matters. The main character is John Palaeologus, who, as a child just before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, learns that he is the son and heir to the last Byzantine emperor. He keeps his secret as Mehmed and his Turkish armies conquer the city; he even serves Mehmed for several years before he is able to leave his ill-fated city and seek a means to make a living and restore his empire by visiting other parts of Europe. His skills and intelligence lead him down two paths—one, to try and better the world through some acts of political intrigue—the other, to seek the truth about religion to prevent the continued warfare that resulted in the Byzantine Empire’s destruction and which he fears will result in the Muslim conquest of Europe. Ultimately, he ends up before the Spanish Inquisition, and this book is his defense of the events in his life.
I do have a few issues with this book that made me waver between giving it four or five stars, but I so admire the research and the writing style and voice of the book that these issues are minor by comparison. First of all, in its promotional material, “The Last Byzantine” is referred to as a King Arthur story, yet King Arthur has nothing to do with the story—it is a stretch even to compare the main character to King Arthur—the similarities are very subtle, yet the quest for truth and good and the idea that the king will come again correlate somewhat with the spiritual beliefs of a Messiah in the book. The other flaw may be too much attention to the spiritual or religious argument that all the religions have a core belief. The last one-hundred pages, just over a quarter of the book, are devoted to these arguments, primarily based in Sumerian mythology and religion—as well as a sense that an apocalyptic or new order is about to unfold sometime between 2012 and the 2200s. Ten or twenty pages of this would have been sufficient, but many readers may find it interesting—most of what the author said I’ve read elsewhere so I found my eyes glazing over a bit at times, and “The Florilegium” section is just a collection of quotations on different religious and apocalyptic topics without any real order or purpose to them. Usually, I find this tendency to expound one’s research in a novel to be insupportable, but McClellan does manage to do it in a believable manner through the character’s voice and documents he has written. With that said, some readers might just want to skip over these parts. The rest of the book is well worth reading.
It would be wrong to dismiss these sections, however, without pointing out the author’s purpose. The back cover states that this book “had to be written after 9/11 and before 2012” (the approaching apocalyptic time), and that the author survived the attack on the Pentagon, which caused him to ask, “So why all the hatred, and how do we get over it?” His purpose in writing the book is to provide a guide between Christians and Muslims and people of all religions, reminding us that God is One and that Love, not religion, is the goal for humanity. I have no doubt “The Last Byzantine” will resonate with readers for this message whether or not they are interested in the details and historical origins of the message.
Overall, in “The Last Byzantine,” Ken McClellan is able to recapture a time and place and make it live again in the voice of its people so that it sounds completely authentic, transporting readers back in time so they scarcely notice they are reading a book, save for the occasional moment when they marvel over his skill at creating a fictional historical world. His style is extremely impressive so I hope many more novels will flow from his pen.