Usually, if I have a favorite book I can count on someone else having heard of it. If I mention The Chronicles of Amber, or Swords Against Death (failing that, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Robert E. Howard, or even Harold Lamb, most of my reader friends will have heard of the book, author, or series. Most of us fantasy and science fiction readers of a certain age have been exposed to these works.
But no one ever seems to have heard of Michael Arnold’s Against the Fall of Night. I looked it up on Goodreads this morning and found one lone reviewer had given it five stars. Everyone else (but me, now) had only checked it off as something they wanted to read.
Published in 1975, Against the Fall of Night is (mostly) set during the time of the last gasp of the Byzantine Empire, during the reign of the Comnenus dynasty. And its main figure is Andronikus, the one man who might have saved the empire from the horrible mismanagement of his cousin Manuel if he’d had just a little more time and a little better luck. Manuel inherits the throne when he and Andronikus are both young men and then gradually, choice after disastrous choice, fritters away resources and opportunities.
Andronikus is a complex figure — charismatic, rash, daring, and brilliant. He’s torn by loyalty to his cousin and his sense that he could do far better, and eventually rebels. He’s the closest literary figure I’ve ever seen to Zelazny’s Corwin of Amber. Minus the ability to ride through shadow, I mean.
The novel opens with the sacking of Constantinople by the Franks during the 4th Crusade, after which Constantinople and the empire endured only as a shadow of its former glory. Arnold postulates that if Andronikus had succeeded, the sacking would never have happened, and once you get to know Andronikus over the course of the novel you’re pretty certain he’s right.