The Sheen on the Silk is a very ambitious novel. It tells the dramatic tale of Constantinople in the 1200's, which is on the brink of being invaded once again by Crusaders. When done well, historical fiction is perhaps my favorite genre to read, because it gives me the sense that I've got a window into the events of the past. However, historical fiction is also a genre that can be something of a minefield because there is a delicate balance that must be struck. Unfortunately, I don't think that Anne Perry was able to strike that balance.
The first thing I notice about a book of this genre is whether the author is able to capture what life was like during the particular time period in which events take place. I felt that Perry did a nice job in this respect. I could imagine what the city must have looked like, what the Hagia Sophia was like, the scents and sounds of the markets, etc. This was one strong point of the novel for me, my sense that Perry enabled me to really step into the shoes of a 13th century Byzantine citizen.
The events of the novel are fairly epic, spanning everything from a woman's quest for revenge to crises of faith on both the parts of the Byzantine Orthodox and Roman Catholic characters. It seemed to me that Perry was trying to capture a pivotal period in time, when the once flourishing culture of Byzantium was beginning to die out, the unfortunate victim of a jealous and avaricious Europe. However, I found the broad scope working to the detriment of the novel. Perry leaps over significant chunks of time with transitions that are quite awkward. Because of this, I occasionally found the novel hard to follow.
However, the biggest disappointment of the book was, for me, the use of the characters. The novel is told from multiple points of view--too many points of view, in my opinion. I felt that too much time was devoted to characters who were less interesting or about whom the reader could have learned just as much through the observations of other characters. This meant that less time was given to the more interesting characters. There were long passages told from Constantine's point of view that seemed as though they could have been cut without sacrificing anything of the narrative thread. Anna makes many observations about him that would have given the reader just as good a sense of his character.
The most underdeveloped character of all was that of Anna. By the end of the book, I felt as if I knew barely anything about her. The book seems to define her mostly within the confines of her determination to bring about justice for her brother, but it never really tells us anything about Anna, herself. The author alludes to Anna's past without giving the reader any real detail about it at all. When Anna's big secret finally is revealed, it is almost anticlimactic, and I felt that the author could have done more with Anna by revealing her secret earlier in the novel and using this to really flesh out the character. Out of all the characters, Anna just didn't ring true for me. The reader is never really given enough information about what makes Anna who she is, and this makes her seem a little too perfect in her reactions to other characters.
On the other hand, I felt Perry did an excellent job of fleshing out the character of Giuliano. He is given a lot of internal dialog and I found his to be the best-drawn character arc. He grows a lot during the course of the novel, and I found him to be very sympathetic. Out of all the characters he was, by far, my favorite.
This is a very uneven novel that I feel would have benefited from some additional editing. The beginning was particularly repetitive at times, with the metaphor of silk being stated so explicitly over and over, it was nearly being pounded into the reader's head. There were passages that simply didn't need to be in the novel, because they didn't advance the plot and provided the reader with no real insight into the characters. I simply couldn't understand why passages like these were included at the expense of some further insight into a character as central to the novel as Anna was.