Prior to getting this as yet another freebie from Barnes and Noble, I had never heard of this book, nor of the author. Now I’m really glad they came to my attention. This was a fast-paced, thrilling, meticulously researched account of the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Turks under badass Sultan Mehmet II. I wasn’t able to read it all in one sitting, but I would have liked to!
As you probably already know, I adore historical fiction, especially that with a military bent- “guy history” I call it- long on blood and guts and short on romance. This was a perfect specimen. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re a Bernard Cornwell fan, you’ll like Humphreys as well. That this is an area of history that isn’t particularly well-trodden by authors is a plus as well.
A Place Called Armageddon starts first of all, with a totally awesome cover. I wish I could blow it up to poster-size and hang it on my non-existent wall. I think I just stared at that image for a good five minutes. The prologue sent shivers up my spine. Here’s an excerpt:
6 April 1453
We are coming, Greek.
Climb your highest tower, along those magnificent walls. They have kept you safe for a thousand years. Resisted every one of our attacks. Before them, where your fields and vineyards once stood, are trenches and emplacements. Empty, for now. Do you expect them to be filled with another doomed army of Islam, like all the martyrs that came and failed here before?
No. For we are different this time. There are more of us, yes. But there is something else. We have brought something else.
The Fall of Constantinople is epic in every sense of the word and Humphreys does it justice, all the while creating characters we can care about to personalize a potentially unwieldy tale.
On the Greek side is Gregoras, a former soldier of Constantinople who has been mutilated and exiled as a traitor. When the story begins, he is fighting as a mercenary for Genoa. His twin brother Theon, is a diplomat who has risen high in the Byzantine government and who married Sophia, the girl that Gregoras loved and was promised to before his fall from grace.
On the Turkish side, we get to know Hamza, one of the Sultan’s closest advisers and Ahmed, a farmer who leaves his family in hopes of getting rich on plundering the wealthiest city in the world. He is a big strong man who is primarily driven by the death of his beloved daughter from hunger and disease. He hopes his actions will mean his family will never want for anything.
Straddling both sides- literally and figuratively- is Leilah a sexy fortune-teller/sorceress type who starts out encouraging the Sultan on his quest to succeed where his ancestors failed, and ends up falling in love with Gregoras, in convoluted, yet fascinating plot turns.
There are numerous interesting secondary characters, chief among them Sultan Mehmet II, only 21 at the time of the siege. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine is well and sympathetically drawn. An old man presiding over a dying empire, he is true to his role and heritage to the bitter end.
The Genoese mercenary commander Giustiniani (it only took me four tries to spell that!)Longo is a particularly enjoyable character and appears frequently as Gregoras’ boss. There is also a Scotsman (called “The German” by Greeks and Italians alike, maybe because of the guttural sounds he makes?), John Grant, an explosives expert/moonshiner who becomes a good friend to Gregoras.
It’s a lot of characters, but the focus is primarily on Gregoras, and most of the action relates to him in one way or another, which keeps it from being confusing. Very masterfully done, and superior to the crazy mish-mash of characters in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, by way of comparison.
By the mid-15th century, the Turks had been trying to conquer Contsantinople for hundreds of years. It’s favorable position and massive walls, three layers deep, have held off invaders for 1000 years. But now the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire is weak, most of its wealth and population long gone. But for the Turks, it’s the ultimate prize- The Red Apple, they call it. They don’t know that at most, a few thousand men remain to defend he city.
A young, ambitious Sultan assembles a vast army and brings it to the city’s walls in 1453. Panic-stricken, the city fathers send to Italy for aid. They receive it, but at a price. In exchange for the use of Venetian and Genoese mercenaries, the people of the city must convert to Roman Catholicism. It’s not a popular request, but the city’s leaders feel it’s better to be the “wrong” kind of Christian than to be conquered by Islam.
Even though he has sworn never to return, Gregoras is inexorably drawn back to Constantinople. He ends up taking part in the defense of the city, and learning that his brother Theon basically screwed him over so he could marry the beautiful, though exceedingly religious Sophia.
The events leading up to the siege are interesting, and place all of the important characters on the stage, but there is no match for the thrill of the first attacks. Unlike his predecessors, Mehmet has brought some really, really big cannon, and those do a good job of knocking the huge walls much of the way down. The Greeks are feisty though, and they have even feistier Italians helping them. They beat back one attack after another and keep the walls propped up with sticks and barrels. Parts of it literally have become nothing but wooden stockade. And yet, seven weeks on, the Turks can’t get in.
Conditions in the city have become dire, and through Sophia’s eyes we see how desperate and hopeless the population feels. Sophia is lucky, though. Even though Theon is a jerk, he makes a treacherous deal with the Turks to make sure his family will be safe when the city falls. At the same time, Gregoras has met up with Leilah in the Ottoman camp again, and through her makes sure that Sophia and her children will be safe as well.
The last 140 pages of the book are mostly about the final, successful assault on the city, and the sack that followed. At that point, I really couldn’t put the book down anymore. Gregoras is primarily an archer, but he’s also skilled with crossbow and falchion, and anything else he gets his hands on, so he’s always in the thick of the fighting. Coming in from the other side is Ahmed. who follows the janissary troops leading the final assault into the city.
There’s a great deal of mayhem, but through it all, Humphreys never loses track of all of his characters and gets them all taken care of one way or another. The pacing in this part is just excellent. Even though an epilogue is needed to resolve everything, the ending is overall, pretty satisfying.
A great read, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some of Humphreys’ other books.