The idea seems good: a fictitious Bysantian embassy making a journey through Britain in the 6th Century, encountering a good representation of peoples and courts there, getting insight into culture and customs. All based, naturally, on what historical records and archeological evidence tells us.
I love the subject, so why has it taken so long to get through it (and, in the last few days, a good portion of determination, I might add)? Well, a quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr might give you a clue:
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
The voice of this tale (if you can call it a tale) belongs to the Byzantin Emperor´s Geographer, basing his narrative on the returned logg of the embassy. The members of the embassy are anonymous until they die and get a note in the logg, from which the Geographer at times quote directly. Only in an appendix on one of the last pages do we get the names of the members of the embassy listed. So, we don´t know who these people are, we know nothing of their personalities, nothing at all.
At times, the book is a bit funny, in that look-at-these-strange-customs-haha kind of way. No doubt, an educated Bysantin scholar would have felt very superior next to the simple Celts and Saxons, but still, it´s kind of tiring. However, let me give you one of the funniest episodes, when the embassy takes on their Saxon hosts in a riddling match:
Another member of the group stood up to give it to us: "Dropping from the thigh of man a strange shape lurking under the cloak. Chained to the body by a strong bond I am stiff, hard and stand there well. When a man searches for me he lifts his clothes and takes this thing. I am to push my head into a similarly shaped hole of the same breadth which often my hard rod has penetrated before. What am I?"
We blushed and the Saxons roared to see our discomfort. Then, when finally we admitted defeat, for we could not bring ourselves to say that word, our kindly hosts screamed for more drinks and told us that the had, in fact, been describing a key! Downcast and sheepish as we felt, they, however, had the good grace to offer us a further riddle, a chance to redeem ourselves:
"I fill women with expectation and though erect and tall is my stem - I stand hard in a bed - and I am whiskered below. A greedy wench will grip me hungrily, putting me in a close place. But soon she will pay for her presumption and this lovely woman who assaults and pulls at me will find her eyes become wet. What am I?"
This time we were wise to their wicked tricks and discarded the obvious. In fact, after only a minute, it was again Manuel who untied the sentence by thinking intently on the last line: "her eyes become wet". They were, of course, talking about an onion! Now it was our turn to laugh and, nettled by our guessing one of their most devious riddles, the Saxons asked us to give them, instead, one of the riddles of the Greeks.
Of course, we are not a riddling people and so had none to hand. But we remembered the famous question of the Sphinx. "What has four legs in youth, two legs in age and three legs in old age?", while, to add some grandeur to the occasion, one of our number pretended to read it out of the log, for that usually impresses the illiterate. However, it did not work. In fact, all the Saxons made contemptuous sounds, stating the answer "man" immediately, indeed, taunting us by asking whether this was really the best the Greeks could do. Now we had to put these swamp dwellers back in their place and so, locking our heads together, we determined to create a new riddle, one in their style that would best them. Our "masterpiece", for they applauded it enthusiastically when we finally gave the answer, was as follows:
"I grow in a small place, swelling up and rising with the excitement of being covered and hot. I have no bones and so the maiden takes me in her hands and pumps me and then she hides my growing self to perfect." The answer, of course, is "dough" and the master of ceremonies assured us it would enter their repertoire as one of the most provoking of all the riddles he had heard.
So, the intent was good, the material excellent, but I must say, the result wasn´t a very exciting reading experience. I would have enjoyed a proper history book better, illustrations wouldn´t have hurt either. I think bits and pieces of fiction, like the one above still could have been incorporated, to amuse the readers.