Well-forged tale

by
27 March 2015

The Donation of Constantine
Simon LeVay
Lambourn Books £11.95
(978-1-47013215-6)
Available from Amazon

IT IS 751, and Rome is under threat of attack from the Lombard King Aistulf, who has already brutally sacked Ravenna. In the Lateran Palace, pious Pope Stephen's more worldly counsellors try to persuade him to fight back, or appeal to the Emperor in Constantinople for help.

In the firm belief that they are acting for good, Stephen's much more street-wise brother Paul and a bright English nun forge a decree from the fourth-century emperor Constantine giving the Pope temporal and spiritual power over the Christian world. Emboldened by his new authority, Stephen undertakes a perilous journey across the mountains to France, and crowns Pepin king, asking for his help in saving Rome.

At the same time, across the river in Rome's poor quarter, a devout Muslim boy, Omar, falls in love with his Christian neighbour Lenora. The forged decree will affect both their lives, as it will those of people who do not know of its existence.

This is a ripping yarn, and LeVay's skill in moving between apparently unrelated stories that finally interweave keeps the reader turning the pages. He is good at capturing atmo-sphere, whether it's a freezing winter journey or the claustrophobic world of the papal court. It is also a highly intelligent novel that requires a great deal of background knowledge to understand it properly. LeVay gives us this through the dialogue, without being patronising or stilted.

He has done a huge amount of research into what Rome was actually like at the time, and is fascinated by complex processes, whether political or technical. I didn't know that Rome's grain was ground by ship mills on the Tiber. I do now, and exactly how they work.

Underpinning the book, of course, is the old question whether the end justifies the means, which is one he leaves unanswered.

Fiona Hook

Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

100 Best Christian Books

How many have you read?

Visit the 100 Best Christian Books website to see which books made our list, read the judges' notes and add your own comments.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)