Justinian: The Sleepless One by Ross Laidlaw

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Justinian: The Sleepless One by Ross Laidlaw

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Melony Sanders
Reviewed by Melony Sanders
Summary: The life and times of one of the last Roman Emperors
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Polygon
ISBN: 978-1846971587

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Born Uprauda Ystock, the son of a peasant, Justinian (as he was to become known) managed to change his life around when his mother's brother, Roderic, an important general in the Roman Army, paid for his education. After a series of successes, Roderic became Emperor Justin and then passed the mantel on to his nephew, who became known as Justinian. When he came into power, the Roman Empire was under attack from all directions and Justinian was forced to battle for his right to remain Emperor. Fortunately, he married Theodora, an ex-courtesan, who helped to mould him into the leader that he needed to be. Was this enough to remain in power, or would it all be snatched away from him?

Roman history is not something I am at all familiar with - in fact, before reading this book, I had not even heard of Justinian. Despite this, and despite the fact that this is the third book in a trilogy about the last years of the Roman Empire, it wasn't really necessary to have much of an understanding about the Romans in order to follow the story. It is very much based on fact and so there are a great deal of names and places to process, but most of these are explained in the copious notes that accompany the book - and often really aren't that necessary to the understanding of the story anyway.

The books is a curious mixture of personal anecdotes about Justinian and the other main characters in the story and lots of fact, particularly when it comes to describing battles and political in-fights. Fortunately, the chapters chop and change between these two aspects - the descriptions of the battles of politics are incredibly dry and would have been very dull if spread over more than one chapter in a go. The personal side of the characters' lives feels different - more interesting to read, even though the characters aren't particularly well-drawn. Were it not for these sections, the book would have been almost undreadable.

Unfortunately, Justinian, as a character, isn't one that many readers will warm to. It would appear to be because he is not a particularly likeable person - he acted in a cowardly way more than once and appeared to be totally unaware that many of those around him were actually working against him. One of his closest supporters, Procopius, turned out to hate Justinian so much that he not only plotted against him, but he also wrote a personal history of Justinian and Theodora in which he described them as evil, selfish, and, in Theodora's case, a sex maniac. As at least some of the book is based on Procopius' history, it is hard to avoid thinking that Justinian cannot have been the most pleasant of people.

Despite this, Ross Laidlaw does try to balance out Procopius' stories by giving Justinian a slightly more rounded character - he is also described as being bookish and loving, especially of Theodora, and perhaps more gullible rather than evil. It doesn't make him a wonderful character by any stretch of the imagination, but then Laidlaw is only working with the resources that he had. Theodora is a little more human. She appears to be very cognizant of a good opportunity when she sees one and she certainly appeared to influence her husband's policies a great deal more than she should have been allowed. However, she does, at least, have more about her than her husband.

Other characters tend to appear fleetingly, then disappear, then return. They add a bit of colour to the story, but not perhaps as much as they could have. I respect that Laidlaw was probably trying to stick to facts, rather than adding characteristics to characters that he didn't know existed, but it would have made for much more interesting reading had he been a little more descriptive. With the exception of Theodora, none of the characters really seem to come to life and, although it is interesting to read about what happens to them, it is hard to care about them all that much.

As mentioned, there is a lot of emphasis on the many battles that occurred across Europe and Asia during Justinian's rule. It is quite amazing to find out just how far the Roman Empire reached, how (relatively) easy it was to travel great distances and just how many people (albeit in senior positions) spoke more than just the language of their birth. Thankfully, because many of the names of the countries, regions and races mentioned no longer exist, there are a number of maps throughout the book, which make it easier to follow what is happening. It still does require a lot of attention though.

On the whole, this is an interesting book, but it isn't as well-written as it could have been. It feels very academic a lot of the time and for the casual reader, this isn't ideal. Were it a little easier to identify with some of the characters, the book would have been much more readable. I don't regret reading it - I learned a great deal - but it will be a while before I can persuade myself to read another book by this author. His writing style is just a bit too dry to be really enjoyable. Anyone interested in Roman history may well find it more approachable, but for someone looking for a good story, there are many more appealing books out there. Three stars out of five.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of Theoderic by Ross Laidlaw.

Further reading suggestion: If you enjoy this type of fiction, you may also like Crusade by Elizabeth Laird and The Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles) by Ben Kane.

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Buy Justinian: The Sleepless One by Ross Laidlaw at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Justinian: The Sleepless One by Ross Laidlaw at Amazon.com.


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