The complicated story of Richard Strawn and his daughter Jennifer begins in the late 1800’s. Rejected by his wife after a sudden fire at the Philadelphia publishing house where he works puts an end to his livelihood, Richard retreats to his Pennsylvania farmhouse in a wave of alcohol and self-loathing.
Fortunately for Richard the house is in the current care of a sympathetic old man, giving Richard the opportunity to re-examine himself and his beliefs. Meanwhile Richard’s oldest daughter Jennifer finds herself suffering in a mental hospital in New York City. Much like her father, Jennifer depends on the sympathies of a stranger in order to escape a world of insufferable cruelty and both manage to do so despite the odds against them.
It is in the mental hospital though that the true complexity of Jennifer and Richard’s relationship reveals itself. In short, thanks mostly to the evidence found in dreams, both believe to some extent that they are a reincarnated King and Queen of times long ago. Dreams prove ever important to the story as Jennifer recalls her father saying “Don’t let anyone take away your dreams. When we stop dreaming, we stop living.” As the story progresses, the two follow their dreams as a means to narrow down the idea that they were not just any King and Queen of antiquity, but specifically the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.
And so begins years of searching for and refining evidence that Jennifer, and Richard are, in fact, old Byzantine souls. Incorporating historical accounts such as Procopius’s Secret History, the book offers juicy portions of ancient writing and thought. Frequent references to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, are woven seamlessly into the story, however these efforts are often lost in a minefield of clichés (e.g. “There’s evil in Saints and goodness in devils”) and historical lectures, such as comes from an elderly Jesuit “I find it appropriately amusing that Justinian, in the fit of rage in which he finally dispatches Anthimius, lumps Pythagoras and Plato with his arch-enemy Origen. I assume you know why these philosophers, pagans who predated Christianity by centuries, became the specific targets of imperial wrath?”
Fans of Byzantine history will recognize events such as the Nika Revolt, however those new to the subject may not find Jennifer and Richard to be the most worthy ambassadors. Convinced as they are by their own mission they often forget to take the time to convince the reader. Likewise, those skeptical of reincarnation stories (no matter how fictionalized) will likely dismiss the two with the old skeptic’s argument: why do so many people who believe in reincarnation believe they were once great kings and queens? Certainly some, if not most people must have been commoners. What makes Jennifer and Richard so special and, more importantly, worth following for hundreds of pages? While a father and daughter’s shared belief that they were once king and queen bristles with taboo, it seems unlikely to persuade the skeptic or satisfy the devotee.
Ultimately an ambitious work of semi-historical fiction, The Anathemas does an excellent job of touching on the oft neglected excitement of ancient Byzantium. However, the larger story often loses the reader in vast tracts of exposition and a conspicuous lack of characters worth caring about.
Reviewed by Collin Marchaindo for IndieReader