A Place Called Armageddon, by C. C. Humphreys

I don't often read historical fiction, but occasionally a story of a particular period or event will pique my interest. This saga by Humphreys is about the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II in 1453.

Originally the Greek city of Byzantium, Constantine the Great rebuilt and renamed it in 324 CE as the capital of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire until the events of this book, after which it became part of the Ottoman Empire and eventually renamed Istanbul. So its fall, after 1,129 years must truly have seemed like the end of the world, of a world at least.

Although there is plenty of description of both sides' strategies and vivid battle scenes, Humphreys wisely conveys all of that information through the characters. We learn it as they do. And I was truly interested in the people through whose eyes we experience these events.

They are a mix of real and fictional characters. The protagonist is a fictional one: Gregoras, who has been unjustly condemned as a traitor and banished from Constantinople to make his way as a mercenary, leaving his twin brother to marry Gregoras's beloved and become one of King Constantine's most trusted advisors. This Cain and Abel pair gives us a view into the king's secret deliberations as well as the front line of battle. On the Turkish side, we experience the life of a foot soldier through Achmed, a farmer hoping to find rich plunder in the fabled city, enough to protect his family through droughts and destruction. Moving between Greeks and Turks is the sorceress Leilah, whose prophecies and visions weave through the events like a glittering thread.

Besides Constantine and Mehmet, other real characters include John Grant, the Scotsman trying to open the ancient secret of Greek Fire; Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a former mercenary who commanded the Greek defenses, and Hamza Pasha, Mehmet's servant, through whose eyes we see the 21-year-old Turkish sultan.

Part of the problem with historical fiction is that you know the ending. The solution, of course, is to give us characters we care about and whose fate we are desperate to discover. Humphries does this effectively.

He uses multiple point of view characters, which sometimes made scenes feel superficial. I normally dislike shifting points of view, and particularly when they shift too often. Staying with one or two characters provides a more in-depth experience, I believe. However, as the story unfolded, I understood that he needed all of these people in order to tell it. I would have preferred that he stick to one character at time, which he mostly does. But sometimes he shifts point of view within a single scene, also known as head-hopping, a maneuver that distracts and confuses me.

Still, I loved the characters and found the story exciting. I rather dreaded the battle scenes, but we experienced them through the characters, so that I found them fascinating too. I'm impressed with the way Humphreys revealed the necessary information—such as battle plans, geography, and history—seamlessly through the characters' stories.

What historical fiction have you enjoyed?

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