Title: Outlandish Knight
Author: Minoo Dinshaw
Page Count/Review Word Count: 768
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book for free to review as part of my position on the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel. Click here to find out more about that.
Well, I mean, where do I start. There’s a lot to take in from this book, but I guess the best place to start is to explain that this is a biography of a man called Steven Runciman, a historian and author who was one of the foremost experts on the Byzantine Empire. And the Byzantine Empire, as every good schoolboy knows, “was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, which had been founded as Byzantium). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.” Yes, I did just get that from Wikipedia.
As you can imagine, this isn’t necessarily the kind of book that I’d usually read. It was incredibly well-written and thoroughly researched, and while I did enjoy it as a whole, I struggled to think of a single person that I’d recommend it to. There are so many books to read and such little time, and seeing as most people have never heard of Steven Runciman, I’m not sure why you’d take the time to read it. It does a great job of preserving the old boys’ club vibe of Britain in the early 20th century, and I’m sure it’ll ultimately have at least some historical value, but for fun? Eh.
On the plus side, Runciman did live an interesting life, and he was even friends with a bunch of people whose names you’d probably recognise. People like George Orwell and the Queen Mother, for example. But it is a little strange to read a biography when you haven’t heard of the person but you’ve heard of many of his contemporaries. The result is almost a book about someone who was famous for being famous, if you can even call it fame. So he’s basically the Paris Hilton of the field of Byzantine history.
Despite all of this, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did. I’m pretty glad that I read it and I’m equally glad that I finished it. It was certainly more enjoyable to me than, say, Homer’s Odyssey, but it did kind of feel similar in that I was reading it so that I could say that I’ve read it, rather than because I was super keen to get stuck in.
There’s also the fact that a huge chunk of this book is made up from the notes at the end. That might seem off-putting at first, because it adds a huge chunk to the book and makes it difficult to hold it, especially if you’re carrying it around on public transport or trying to read it in bed. Perhaps an electronic version would have worked better, but then I don’t read e-books and so I doubt I would have ever picked it up. An audio book, then.
Actually, I think there’s so much detail here that an electronic copy really would work better, because it would allow the author to link to other sources and to go into extra detail on some of the different people that Runciman met. The man lived into his nineties and appears to have had a pretty decent archive of diaries and photographs, and he’d also written an unpublished autiobiography. With such a wealth of material, perhaps it’s no surprise that the book was this long – but equally, it could probably have been even longer.
Overall, then, I found it pretty easy to rate this book, but I still struggle to think of a single person I’d recommend it to. Unless you’re an existing fan of Steven Runciman, if such a thing exists, or unless you’re studying either Runciman or Byzantine history, I’m just not sure why you’d want it. And like I said, this has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the research. It’s genuinely very well done. I just can’t really think who it would appeal to. I feel as though Dinshaw wrote this because it was a personal passion project rather than for any mainstream recognition. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.