3 out of 4 stars
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Peter Darman’s The Black Sheep is a work of historical fiction set in the days of the Byzantine Empire. The story begins in 1304 at a time when this Empire has been in retreat for several centuries. Weakened by attacks from both Islamic rulers to the east and from Catholic crusaders to the west, the Empire is just about clinging on to its remaining territory in Anatolia, the area now covered by modern-day Turkey. To keep the Muslim rulers from overrunning his last remaining territories, the Emperor of Constantinople needs to hire mercenaries to support his dwindling forces. He turns for help to the Catalan Company, recent conquerors of the French in the long-running Sicilian Wars.
The novel follows the fortunes of Luca Baldi, a young Sicilian shepherd. His friendship with Jordi Rey is key to his future. Jordi is a foot soldier, or Almogavar, with the Catalan mercenary army. He is the son of Sancho Rey, one of the leaders of the Catalans. Luca and Jordi get into a row with a Sicilian knight, who wants to slaughter Luca’s single black sheep which, according to the superstition of the time, is viewed as a bad omen. A fight ensues, which ends with Luca being arrested. He is forced to flee Sicily with the departing Catalans. Luca becomes an Almogavar and discovers that he is a natural warrior. The Catalans bestow on him the nickname, ‘The Black Sheep’. The novel follows the fortunes of the Catalan army as it travels through Anatolia fighting in the service of the Emperor of Constantinople and attempting to liberate the cities of Philadelphia, Magnesia, and Tire.
This is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. At its core is a gripping story of a young man as he transitions from a peaceful shepherd to a battle-hardened soldier. Additionally, this is a tale that educates as it entertains. I knew very little about Byzantine history before I started reading this book. I also knew little about the military history of the time, about the tactics used by the various factions and the weaponry they used. The author provides the reader with a great insight into what life must have been like as a foot soldier in this period. Beyond the military aspect, the lifestyles of people in the region are also explored. The type of clothes they wore, the food they ate, and the languages they spoke, are all depicted in a very readable form. The author does not try to sugar-coat the period. Depictions of violent death are frequent while subjects like slavery or pedophilia also feature in the narrative.
The narrative pulls the reader along. There is genuine tension during some of the battle scenes, as one is never sure which side will prevail, or which characters will survive. The characters are well-drawn. Though the book appears to have been professionally edited, there are a few errors scattered around, but these are neither major nor distracting.
I can only award this novel three out of four stars as I must deduct a mark because of the errors. I’d have been happy to give it a maximum score otherwise. It will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction with a military theme. It is a book for adults as it contains scenes of violence, sex, and a few scattered curse words. The author ends the book with a strong hint that there is more to come from Luca and Jordi. I hope that’s the case.
The Black Sheep
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