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The Mosaic of Shadows

'It was evening when the axe-wielding barbarians arrived at my door.'

For a thousand years after the fall of the West, the empire of Byzantium, centred on the great city of Constantinople, perpetuated the living, unbroken legacy of the Roman empire. It reached the peak of its latter-day power in 1025 under the Emperor Basil II, but a dozen weak and corrupt successors squandered his accomplishments until the very existence of the empire was under threat. In these circumstances, a dynamic, young leader named Alexios Komnenos rose to the imperial throne from a cabal of the powerful military families, and through hard-fought campaigns and cunning diplomacy managed to reassert the strength and glory of Byzantium. But he was not unopposed: Turks, Normans, Bulgarians, Germans and Venetians constantly pressed at his borders, while contenders from within his own and rival families schemed recklessly to usurp his throne. With the Turks in particular advancing ever further into the hinterland of Asia Minor, Alexios was forced to beg the estranged Pope in Rome to provide soldiers to buttress the faltering Byzantine armies. Much to his surprise, and subsequent alarm, he got them: the Pope preached the first crusade, and tens of thousands of western knights mobilised to descend on Byzantium.

It was my half-Greek wife who first suggested that I should write about Byzantium, and I was instantly enthusiastic. I didn't know much about it, but I had a vivid impression of what it was: vast, shadowy hallways in labyrinthine palaces; glittering golden mosaics; treacherous eunuchs; the smell of incense; and, of course, the eponymous Byzantine intrigue. I'd always enjoyed the historical Roman mysteries of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, and Byzantium seemed to be the perfect location to write something in the same vein, but in a Roman empire that had evolved into something even more exotic.

But where to start? The history of Byzantium stretches for over 1100 years, from the founding of the city in 332 to its eventual downfall in 1453. I started by reading a concise history of Byzantium - quite literally, A Concise History of Byzantium, by Warren Treadgold - and found plenty to spark my imagination. The golden age of the emperor Justinian, when Byzantium's civilisation was at its peak. The iconoclasm crises of the 8th and 9th centuries. The sack of Byzantium by the fourth crusade in 1204. Ultimately, a variety of factors drew me to the end of the eleventh century when - after decades of near-terminal decline - a vigorous young emperor seized the throne and began to rebuild the empire. To my mind, there was something almost Arthurian about the way he managed to hold back the darkness, for a little while at least. The political upheaval that surrounded him offered plenty of scope for intrigue, plotting and mystery. But most of all, there was the unintended by-product of his attempt to wrest control of Asia Minor back from the Turks: the inception of the First Crusade.

I started thinking about Mosaic in the spring of 2002. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had just fallen, and America's angry gaze had begun to turn towards Iraq. The First Crusade has always fascinated me, and at that moment the idea of western armies invading the Middle East seemed particularly relevant. In the years since, it's become ever more so. And at a time when the west was bitterly divided over how to prosecute a war against Islam, the encounter between the armies of western Christendom - young, thrusting, ambitious powers - and the Byzantine empire - ancient, creaking, and weighed down by the caution of centuries - seemed particularly momentous.

The Mosaic of Shadows introduces Demetrios Askiates - former soldier, mercenary, and now a self-styled 'unveiler of mysteries' in Constantinople. As the novel opens, he finds himself catapulted into a new league of intrigue and danger when an assassin looses an arrow at the emperor, and he is called to investigate.

You can read the first chapter of Mosaic of Shadows here - or listen to it read by Tom Harper here.