Saint John Don Bosco:

"Never read books you aren't sure about . . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?"

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

If you like the Dear America Diary series, you might like this historical novel even more.

We first meet Anna, a Byzantine princess, living in a convent. The depressing description of the convent with its "droning reading of the Bible," drabness, and general lack of cheer is appropriate from Anna's perspective since she is involuntarily exiled here after trying to assasinate her brother, the reigning emperor of Byzantium.

We then moves back into Anna’s past to show her passage from designated-heir-to-the-throne to exiled princess.

There is a striking contrast between Anna's mother, a noble lady who tries to teach Anna to rule with virtuous character and humble care and Anna's proud, hard Grandmother who wishes to teach her to lead in a more ruthless and selfish way as well as rule under her influence. Anna herself is deeply ambitious and caught between the two but determined to rule her on her own.

The book is engaging, rich with historical detail, and, generally speaking, content-safe...

Which does not translate into my being completely thrilled with it.

I detect a secular-modernist viewpoint wafting between the pages in a slightly smelly way. Anna is a Christian princess of the empire that literally saved the West from the sweep of Islam for 1,000 years after the fall of Rome. Not only did Islam rapidly gobble up large portions of the geographic map,it virtually never failed to chew up and digest most the remnants of Christian culture caught in its wake. None of this simple historical background is presented.

Two of the most sympathetic characters in the book are Anna’s pagan teacher and her Turkish slave. Anna also manages twice to refer to the Turks as infidels, which is understandable in context but naturally rings poorly in the ears of a modern audience. Since we live in a country with few enough citizens who can put the Middle East or even Greece on a map, it’s unlikely they will understand the context well. Especially, as explained above, with an anemic historical background.

Besides Christian accoutrements and references to priests and churches, the story has little to none of the riches of the Faith. Neither Anna nor any of her family demonstrate any Christianity that appears to reach their hearts or contribute to the robust Christianity that marked the Byzantine empire, although her parents are appropriately appalled at the thought of not being honest about treaties made with other nations. Anna and her pagan (really? A Byzantine princess with a pagan tutor?) discuss the Gods twice: both times with Anna toying with the idea of pagan Gods existing. The closest Anna gets to mentioning Jesus is a reference to the guardian angel that Christians believe every Church/diocese has. Anna likes the idea; she glances hopefully above the church and palace looking... and never sees it. So continues her doubt and skepticism.

Anna's pious mother either loses her Faith in the sin of despair upon the death of her husband, or she's just insane. Either way, conversations between Anna and the mother after the father's death focus on the problem of evil in the world negating the concept of a loving God.

This segues fittingly into Anna's explanation of truth. When asked, she declares truth to be the facts she reads in history about the people who are motivated by greed and selfishness. This may explain the character of a woman who plotted an assassination, but this is not even close to what a classical education offered to a Byzantine Christian of any rank would define as the truth. It's a comment more fitting to a modern mind; though I suppose the real Anna might have been thinking like a modern secular historian.

Then there is the (brief) depiction of the nun who battles wills with Anna and tries to humiliate her. The book makes a point of listing reasons the nuns went into the convent: not a one because of a pursuit of a vocation and holiness. For one nun, it is better than getting beat up at her (supposedly) Christian home. That's a pretty narrow historical lens.

The portrayal of King John is perplexing. He's shown as a petulant, spoiled child who manages to out-manipulate his horrid grandmother. While it helps explain how Anna and her mother might feel desperate enough to attempt his assassination, it doesn't hold up to the historical footnote: John was a beloved king... an example of what a Christian king should be: a ruler known for his good works and care of his people. It's not likely he underwent such a transformation if his formative years were rooted in such a despicable character...

At any rate, Simon, Anna's tutor, teaches her an important lesson in the end at great self-sacrifice. As the Church teaches, God has given reasonable souls to all men, and thus history is replete with men who discover truth without knowing Christ and the Scripture. Simon is a good example of this and his choice of how he helps Anna is a powerful ending.

SAFETY RATING: A cautious 2; needs discussion


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