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Monday, October 12, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on Defying Others' Expectations

An Italian vase in the British Museum
shows the Greek Hero Theseus
defending his home city of Athens
from an invasion of Amazons.

In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's novel A Flame in Byzantium, Olivia might have escaped the Ostrogoth invaders by moving from Rome to Constantinople, but as a woman and a widow, she enjoys few rights in Byzantine society. She must name Belisarius as her legal guardian. While he remains in Rome, she must petition for an exception to the rules every time she wishes to procure household staff, or do anything significant involving money or people. Thankfully, she is allowed to hire workers to furnish her new home. But when her bondsman discovers that goods from her plundered Roman villa have ended up in Byzantium, she cannot charge the sellers with theft, or compel the authorities to investigate the piracy.

Nor does she make the friends there that she anticipated. Drosos visits her a few times, but as an army officer, he has no control over where he is stationed. Belisarius returns home eventually, but as he has failed to secure Rome, he now lives in disgrace. For a time, Belisarius' wife Antonina moved in elite circles, and allowed Olivia to accompany her. But after Belisarius was recalled, and the death of her friend, the Empress Theodora, she finds herself alone and lonely, with no desire to leave her house.

Constantinople had seemed her best hope for the future: a redoubt in a world that seems to no longer value culture, stability, or civilization. Yet everyone there views her with suspicion. She refuses to remarry, join the Byzantine Church, or dress and act like a typical Byzantine woman. Her Roman practices and interests cause her to be branded a licentious, unprincipled unbeliever. They invent stories about her, shun her, and implicate her in scandals. The Court Censor orders her servants to spy on her (under threat of torture and death), and plant books proscribed by the Emperor in her library. His soldiers search her villa, carry away precious furniture and heirlooms, and claim their plunder as evidence. He relentlessly pursues a legal case against her. She can not even leave Constantinople, at least not openly. She would be arrested by soldiers along the road, or those guarding the docks. 

Nevertheless, Olivia refuses to relinquish her principles, way of life, and everything she holds dear. In this way, she becomes a person we can respect and emulate. Even if she is a vampire.

Dragon Dave

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