If late-13th century Europe, riven by war, was a chessboard, the Pope would be queen, rook and knight combined. The king is the charismatic but impotent Manfred of Sicily. This novel, however, is a tale about the pawns.
The bulk of the narrative concerns a scholar, Antioch, sent to the farthest east by Manfred of Sicily to find a menagerie of fabulous animals; only such a gift, he is convinced, will placate the Pope. His companions are a disgraced general, Count Decius, as renowned for his cruelty as for his effectiveness in the field; Venn, a quiet, subtle interpreter; a grim and volatile soldier; and a small boy, Benedict, who has been entrusted to Antioch by his father, an English merchant. Running in tandem with the main narrative is the story of the unnamed merchant, now grown old, who waits in Muslim Spain for news of his son. Instead, a series of callers arrive, and the information they give him – almost all of it about Decius – is disquieting in the extreme.
The ill-starred expedition arrives in China by boat, and the adventurers discover that they are to accompany the retinue of a young woman bound for the court of the Chinese emperor. The young woman is Ming Yueh, to whom Song Rui, a general, has plighted his troth – or so love leads her to believe. Antioch longs to enter the domains of Kublai Khan, for there he is certain will be found the marvellous Asian unicorn; Venn has found his attention caught by letters of pain and longing written in "the woman's script" of China; Decius, like Antioch, is eager to find the great Khan, but only to incite him to lay waste to Christendom. All desires, from love to obsession to revenge, are thwarted, yet all the characters we care about find their own kind of peace.
The quality which binds these characters, and which gives this novel its painful loveliness, is yearning. The characters that do not yearn are given short shrift. The emperor cannot long for anything, he merely itches – for himself more pleasure, and for others more suffering.
The prose aims for lyricism and often hits it ("like the slow murmuring of wheat before a storm breaks"), but as often flounders. This hardly matters, though: the storytelling is masterly. Just as you notice a loose end, the author deftly ties it. Palpable implausibilities are revealed, within the logic of the tale, to be all too credible.
One incident, however, remains implausible. Decius's hatred of the Papacy has two causes. The second, a politically inept enormity committed by papal agents against his loved ones, would be comprehensible in brigands, not in professional men, however cruel. It all smacks of an author raising the stakes unnecessarily.
Loss is stacked upon loss, and yet this novel leaves you oddly uplifted; for all the suffering the characters endure, their courage never deserts them, nor, in the end, do their hopes betray them.Reuse content