This novel opens in 1273, almost seventy years after the sacking of Constantinople during the fourth crusade. The war-ravaged Byzantine Empire is still living with the consequences of the fourth crusade, and is again under threat. In order to avoid another sacking of Constantinople, the Emperor Michael Palaeologus is trying to unite the Greek (Orthodox) and Latin (Catholic) Churches. This is the brief historical background to the novel, and sets the scene for the intrigue and unrest that we see mainly through the eyes of the fictional eyes of Anna Zarides.
Anna Zarides, disguised as a eunuch named Anastasius, is a skilled physician learned in Jewish and Muslim medicine. Anna has travelled to Constantinople to discover why her twin brother Justinian has been implicated in the murder of Bessarion. Disguised as Anastasius, Anna has access to people and to knowledge that would be unavailable to her as a woman: eunuchs have their own power and invisibility in Constantinople.
`The character of eunuchs was like the sheen on the silk - fluid, unpredictable. A third gender, male and female yet neither.'
This is a sprawling and at times convoluted story as befits the period in which it is set and the events it depicts. Intrigue, politics and religion each have a role and some knowledge of the history helps in order to understand the tensions and power struggles between various groups.
I enjoyed this novel, but more because of the setting than because of Anna's quest for the truth of her brother's involvement in Bessarion's murder. I found the fictional component interesting rather than compelling, but the setting was magnificent.