An Oblique Approach is the first novel in the Belisarius series. Byzantium was the Empire of Rome in the East, ruled at this time by Emperor Justinian. A former Thracian peasant, Justinian had selected a minor Thracian noble, Belisarius, to be his bodyguard and then later to head the army facing their Medean foe. While Belisarius was not the Emperor's friend (for Justinian had no friends), they respected each other and Belisarius' wife Antonia was a close friend of the Empress Theodora.
When Belisarius was traveling to assume command the army at Daras, the monk Michael of Macedonia and Anthony Cassian, the local bishop, came to his new house in Aleppo, bringing a strange object found by Michael within his cave in the desert. A faceted crystal that seemed to form and reform, they said that it had brought visions to their minds when they held it and they urged Belisarius to take it into his own hands. When it was passed to him, the crystal flared into light and flooded his mind with visions.
The crystal could induce visions and feelings, but was mostly unable to communicate directly. The visions showed a future in which the Malwa empire of northern India conquered all the known world and induced feelings of dread and despair. But all who held the crystal also felt certain that the future shown and felt was not necessarily the only possible future. The crystal had come to enlist Belisarius himself in an effort to preclude this bitter future in favor of one more consistent with their own desires and inclinations.
While the exhausted crystal quietly regained its strength, the human party formed a conspiracy to counter the evil plans of the Malwa. Deciding to keep the secret among themselves for a time, they arranged for a location to build a secret arsenal and weapons project on property controlled by Anthony. They also agreed that Anthony would arrange for the services of John of Rhodes, a clever ex-naval officer, as the head of the project.
Belisarius had to leave the conspiracy in the others' hands while he assumed command of the army in Daras. The prior commander, Libelarius, had left his army understrength and riddled with corruption, so weeding out the rot was Belisarius' first task. Then he had to rebuild his command structure and replace those struck from the roles.
Belsarius was charged with building a fort near the border as a deliberate provocation of the Persians, but Belisarius needed to conclude the campaign quickly in order to get back to the conspiracy. Once the fort was finished, he arranged for the Army of Lebanon under its two generals, Bouzes and Coutzes, to join with him against the Persians. Then he baited Bouzes and Coutzes with news of a Persian army pay chest and sent the Persian commander a nasty note. Thereafter, he waited for the afternoon wind to blow from the west.
This story depicts an intervention from the future followed by a counter-intervention from the same era. The intervention itself is not described in this volume, but the crystal represents the counterforce. The first portion of the story consists mainly of clearing the decks to allow the conspirators to investigate the real enemy, which could only be done in India by Belisarius himself.
Belisarius does have one large advantage in that his bucellarii, his personal guard, are past masters of covert operations. He doesn't have to hire or acquire specialists, but only has to say who will be left behind. He gains another asset in Irene Macrembolitissa, spymaster for his friend, and fellow general, Sittas.
A reviewer complains that this is a rehash of the General series, but does not seem to understand that that series was loosely based on the historical actions of the real live Belisarius. Another reviewer frets that Belisarius is too perfect, yet fails to note the respect given to the actual general by military historians. Belisarius was only a man, but clearly an unusual man in many respects and nothing in this novel up to the initial visit by Michael and Anthony is inconsistent with known historical facts.
Still another reviewer accused the authors of poor characterization, citing the similar sense of humor among all the military personnel. Interesting enough, that observation is not new, having been made by many others down through the centuries. Professional military men (and women, for that matter) have an ironical and sometimes morbid sense of humor, maybe due to their close association with death and dying. Drake has first-hand knowledge of that sense of humor!
This story sets the stage for the series and tells of the initial efforts of the conspirators. It contains enough battles, raids, and assorted mayhem for any two other books. And it is just getting started.
Highly recommended for Drake & Flint fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of alternate wars and political intrigue.