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The Sheen on the Silk    by Anne Perry order for
Sheen on the Silk
by Anne Perry
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2011 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Anne Perry, best known for her historical mystery series set in Britain (Inspector Monk/Hester Latterly, Inspector Pitt and Christmas series) now takes her myriad of fans to 1273 Constantinople in The Sheen on the Silk. There Anna Zarides (a physician from Nicea) disguises herself as eunuch Anastasius to help her twin brother Justinian Lascaris, who has been implicated in the murder of aristocratic Bessarion Comnenos and imprisoned in a desert monastery.

Constantinople still shows the ravages of its 1203 conquest and pillage - the treasures stolen include the 'four great gilded bronze horses' that adorn St. Mark's cathedral in Venice today. Byzantium is under threat of another invasion by Crusaders if the Orthodox Church fails to reconcile its differences of belief with Rome. The tension of this imminent threat is the backdrop to this story, as the Roman church's policies shift back and forth under a succession of short-lived popes, who send papal legates to treat with Emperor Michael Paleologus, and to spy on his people. One of these legates, Bishop Enrico Palombara, finds himself surprisingly sympathetic to their plight.

While adjusting to all the behavioral nuances required to appear as a eunuch instead of a woman, Anastasius steadily builds a medical practice that creates opportunities to find out what really happened to Bessarion. She becomes close to noblewoman Zoe Chrysaphes, whose life is dedicated to vengeance against those who profited from the sack of the city when she was a child. To her 'Revenge was perfect, richer than laughter, sweeter than honey, more lasting than the scent of jasmine in the air.' Anastasius also works amongst the poor with Orthodox Bishop Constantine, whom she initially respects but grows to despise, as she learns of his personal ambition.

Another story thread follows Venetian ship's captain Giuliano Dandolo (from a junior branch of a great family), who is sent by the Doge to spy on the city. Giuliano also seeks to learn the truth of why his Byzantine mother abandoned him as a child. He befriends Anastasius, who arranges a meeting with someone who knows his past, while saving him from the machinations of Zoe Chrysaphes. Together they journey to Acre and Jerusalem and back again. Anna begins to struggle with her Orthodox faith and to 'accept that the way to God was a solitary one, born of a passion and a hunger of the spirit that no hierarchy, no ritual however beautiful, could give you, nor in the end prevent you from achieving.'

As darkness closes in on Constantinople, Giuliano makes a hard choice, while Anna reveals her deception to the authorities in the hope of saving her brother before the city is taken. Rich in history and in the details of daily life in the place and time, The Sheen on the Silk is one of Anne Perry's best, and I hope we shall see more of Anna and Giuliano, last seen heading for Jerusalem together.

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