Winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, an imaginative debut that ranges from Havana to Berlin
* A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year * One of Publishers Weekly's "Best Summer Books"*
Ancient cities and fallen empires come to life in this masterful collection. In the Byzantine court, a noble with a crippled hand is called upon to ensure that a holy man poses no threat to the throne. On an island in Lake Michigan, a religious community crumbles after an ardent convert digs a little too deep. And the black detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke rises to fame and falls from favor in two stories that recount his origins in Havana and the height of his success in Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany. Ben Stroud's historical reimaginings twist together with contemporary stories to reveal startling truths about human nature across the centuries. In his able hands, Byzantium makes us believe that these are accounts we haven't heard yet. As the chronicler of Burke's exploits muses, "After all, where does history exist, except in our imagination? Does that make it any less true?"
In the title story in this remarkable debut collection, the crippled son of a prominent general living in the eponymous ancient Greek city is called upon by the emperor for a harrowing and bloody task. "The Moor" features an academic who attempts to unravel the final years of a 19-century detective's life. In "The Traitor of Zion," an impressionable American cult member, also living in the 19th century, discovers the dark side of his leader and himself. And the death-obsessed middle-schooler of "Eraser" imagines ways to escape his step-father's fishing trip while gaining the attention of his mother. Stroud writes convincingly in any time or mode, juggling heavily plotted stories of historical fiction that are cinematic in their sense of adventure and more traditional literary stories admirable for their restraint and close examination of intrapersonal conflicts. It can feel as if Stroud is trying to outdo himself, attempting to discover a narrative or time period he can't conquer, as he places his characters into radically disparate worlds and genres; fortunately, every story is its own success, leaving the impression that Stroud can, indeed, do anything. This is an exciting and essential collection, unlike anything in recent memory, and a decidedly impressive debut.