Book Review – “A Dowry for the Sultan: a Tale of the Siege of Manzikert 1054” by Lance Collins
Self published by the author in Australia.
© Lance Collins 2016
ISBN 9780994540904 (paperback)
Reviewed by Ross Himona
A novel set in Central Eurasia in 1054 against the background of conflict between the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire and the Seljuk Turks. This tale is about the Battle of Manzikert in 1054 in which the Byzantines prevailed against the Turks in their attempt to lay siege to and capture the city of Manzikert. In 1071 at the next Battle of Manzikert the Turks were victorious and seized control of much of Asia Minor. The fall of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 finally ended the Byzantine Empire.
At the time of this novel the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire was Christian and culturally and linguistically Greek. Hence its citizens and soldiers were described as both Roman and Greek which is sometimes confusing. Frankish mercenaries also feature prominently in the novel. The Franks were a Germanic people from the Western Roman Empire who eventually gave their name to the modern France. The other main characters (apart from the Turkish invaders) are the Armenians. Armenia was the first state to become Christian (late 4th Century & early 5th Century) and was absorbed into the Byzantine Empire in 1045, soon after to be invaded by the Seljuk Turks. At the time of this novel Manzikert in Armenia was a key strategic city on the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire.
Central Eurasian history is extremely complex, involving the rise and fall of empires and the waxing and waning of thousands of tribes over many millennia. Although “A Dowry for the Sultan” is set in just a short period in this vast history it has obviously required a great deal of general historical research as well as specific political and military study by the author. That shows in the authenticity of the depiction of cultural, political, military and intelligence aspects of the story. The author’s own background as a military officer and intelligence analyst shines through in the detail of strategic, tactical and intelligence operations central to the story. As a former military officer and intelligence analyst myself I greatly enjoyed that authenticity. Although the central characters brought the book alive for me that authenticity added an extra layer of enjoyment.
Apart from historical, political and military authenticity there are the wonderfully portrayed diverse characters of many ethnicities with whom we are led to intimately engage. In this book the main characters are both human and animal, for in those times horses were the main mode of transport and formed an intimate warrior partnership with the fighting man. We come to know the horses in this story almost as well as we know their owners. The author’s country upbringing and his lifelong love of his own horses shines through. The detail of the partnership between horse and rider is quite astonishing. The people however, the politicians, soldiers, townspeople and their womenfolk, and their stories, are what draw us in and hold our attention from the beginning to the end of this well told story.
The unfolding love stories set against the background of warfare in which men and women often worked and fought side by side were what got me in the end. They are beautifully told. They showed that even in times of constant political intrigue and warfare, and in times in which human life was often valued cheaply, in which rape, pillage, plunder, murder, slavery and genocide were commonplace, there was also beauty in the human relationships. These love stories are islands in an ocean of human misery for this is the story of the clearance of a countryside of its people, animals, crops and treasures by a ferocious invader, and of a fierce battle to eventually defeat him. There is much death and much misery as there was in those times, and as there is still in the Middle East today. Then as now in the to and fro of geopolitical relationships the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.
A Byzantine officer, Leo Bryennius and his soldiers, accompanied by a Frankish mercenary, Guy d’Agiles and his small party, ride from Constantinople to Manzikert to bolster the defences of the city commanded by the Byzantine Basil Apocapes. At the time Manzikert was thought by some to be threatened by Tughrul Bey, the sultan of the Seljuk Turks, although not everyone agreed and it was therefore not adequately garrisoned to repel a determined invader. Bryennius and his men arrive after an incident filled journey to find an undermanned city garrison that would be greatly outnumbered by the Turkish army. The main story revolves around the creative and inventive intelligence operations, strategy and tactics employed by Apocapes and Bryennius to see off Tughrul Bey, and the collective and individual courage and heroism of the defenders of the city.
There is also much intrigue in the employment of spies by both sides. Accurate intelligence was an essential component of the eventual victory.
The novel began to form when the author heard of an incident in history involving the courage of a single soldier about whom virtually nothing was known. He has given Guy d’Agiles that role in the novel and woven the incident into this story. In this fictional account it becomes the key courageous event that finally defeated the Seljuk Turk army and enabled the Byzantine victory at Manzikert in 1054.
A riveting read.