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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Barrett, Tracy. Anna of Byzantium. Delcourt, 1999. 209 p
ISBN 0-385-32626-2   $14.95    Gr. 7-10

Regard the halo above the head of the lovely young woman on our cover with a measure of skepticism; in light of her story, it may be more a wishful than a merited accoutrement. In this liberally fictionalized story of Anna Comnena, daughter and designated heir of eleventh-century Byzantine emperor Alexius I, the protagonist engages with her closest family members in a battle of will and wit for control of the throne-a battle which we realize from the start she will lose. Writing from a remote mountain convent, Anna reflects ruefully on the missteps that led to her exile, and thereby involves readers in a gripping saga of alliances, intrigues, deceits, and treacheries worthy of a place among the tragic myths.

While Alexius and his men-at-arms are off on the first Crusades, the women and children back home fiercely promote their own interests in the governance of the realm. Anna Dalassena, who was responsible for putting her warrior son Alexius on the throne, is his most trusted advisor and de facto regent in his absence. She recognizes Anna Comnena's aptitude for statesmanship and begins to instruct her granddaughter in her own style of ruthless politicking, certain that she will be able to control the next empress as handily as she controls her son. Empress Irene, Anna's mother, is a devout Christian who exerts little power at court (and that mainly through the loving indulgence of her husband); she opposes her mother-in-law's influence over Anna at every turn and fruitlessly warns Alexius during his infrequent appearances at home that their daughter is turning into a cold, amoral young woman under his mother's tutelage. Prince John, the younger brother whom Anna has despised since his birth, is an ignorant, temperamental sneak who senses that Anna Dalassena is the power broker within the family and deliberately drives a fatal wedge between his sister and grandmother.

Anna Comnena comes of age amid these rivalries, freely turning to her grandmother for instruction, ignoring the more temperate messages of her mother and the family's tutor Simon, and underestimating the cunning of brother John. Confident that the throne is hers upon her father's death, she recklessly boasts to Simon about her intention to overthrow Anna Dalassena's power and about her childhood attempt on her baby brother's life (actually, no more than a prayer to the pagan gods to strike him down). John overhears her harangue, reports the treasonous talk to Alexius, and in one swoop has her removed from succession and himself designated royal heir. From that day forward, Anna tries to maneuver back into her father's good graces; when that last hope evaporates upon Alexius's death, Anna and her mother conspire unsuccessfully to poison John at his coronation feast, entangling innocent Simon and Anna's personal slave, Sophia, in their machinations. The plot is discovered, Irene suffers a complete mental collapse, and John mercifully spares Anna from execution, sending her instead into exile.

Knowledge of Anna's lineage is essential to understanding power plays between the ruling Comnenus (Alexius and Anna Dalassena) family and the vanquished Ducas (Irene) family, now tenuously allied through the royal marriage. Whereas many historical fiction writers would scurry to construct elaborate explanatory dialogues or extensive notes, Barrett cleverly delivers a far more entertaining lesson through venomous barbs hurled among lead characters. Anna Dalassena reviles the Empress Irene and her vanquished family: "If the Ducas family knew how to rule, how did [Alexius] take over the throne from them?" Irene ridicules her mother-in-law's "barbarian" roots: "I, after all, was raised in a palace, not in an Armenian goatherd's tent." Wickedly delightful though this asperity may be, Barrett never loses sight of the fact that in the triumph of either royal lies the welfare of their subjects.

Although separated from contemporary readers by foreign custom, social rank, and almost a millennium of Western history, Barrett's protagonist nonetheless commands YA empathy. Anna is a loving daughter, who questions whether her parents' teaching is adequate guidance for her own life; an able student, who masters the content of her lessons before realizing their meaning and purpose; a favored child, who is bitterly jealous of the meteoric ascent of a sibling; a disappointed adolescent, who is unable to fathom the decades ahead and believes that life's best opportunities have passed her by. But teen readers who tend to cast elements of their own lives in equally tragic light can take heart from the concluding pages of Anna's tale. She begins to find solace and tranquility in small daily tasks, softens her contempt of those lower born, and turns her historian hand to what will become her great life's work, writing The Alexiad, a tribute to her father's reign (which in real life now serves as a major source of information about Byzantine history). Perhaps she earned that halo after all.

-- Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer

Big Picture Image
July's Bulletin cover illustration
by David Bowers from
Anna of Byzantium,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Doubleday Books for Young Readers

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This page was last updated on July 1, 1999.