The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology consisting of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay.
It was an amazing coincidence, choosing to read The Sarantine Mosaic when I did. I had just read three books in a row about the early Byzantine Empire, and Belisaurius and Justinian in particular, and had no idea that I was continuing. I was keen to read more, but didn’t have a good pick lined up. I selected The Sarantine Mosaic without knowing that it was a fantasy version of exactly the same historical period and characters. It took me about three chapters to work it out. When I did, I was equally surprised and pleased.
Kay creates a dazzlingly detailed fantasy world by renaming all the people, places and things of that time. Sarantium is Byzantium, Batiara is Italy, Rhodias is Rome, Leontes is Belisaurius, Valerius is Justinian, and on and on. (He must have had extraordinary charts and lists to keep all the alternate reality vocabularly straight!) The effect is dazzling: no fantasy milieu is ever anywhere near as complex as reality!
But as strongly grounded in real history as the book is, Kay brilliantly diverges and decorates with fantasy, and most of the drama of the story concerns completely fictional characters and details. It’s more fantasy than history, which I greatly enjoyed. I could not possibly have chosen a better way to continue my reading about that time.
My sole complaint is that the prose and characters get too maudlin, too often. Everything they experience is too profound and passionate, and I stopped believing it. What, another transcendent experience? It’s not even lunchtime!