The story follows the exploits and careers of the great Byzantine general, Flavius Belisarius; except there is one minor difference from Real Life history. A war in The Future between two posthuman and transhuman factions has spilled into the past as both groups are attempting to alter history to establish a future more to their liking. On one side, you have the 'New Gods,' who are obsessed with genetic purity of the human race. They have sent a cyborg called Link (no, not that one) to aid the Malwa Empire in India in achieving global dominance and instituting the eugenics program to shape the future humanity more to their liking.Link's primary target is the Eastern Roman Empire and its belief in meritorious accomplishment. Their opponents, the Great Ones, send a crystalline AI called Aide to advise the Roman general Belisarius and provide him the technology to defeat the Malwa.Nothing to do with Donald P Bellisario.
The Series Provides Examples of the Following Tropes:
The Alliance: Persia and the Roman Empire (traditional enemies), plus Roman ally Axum, against Malwa. Later some Asian countries, reformed after being taken back from Malwa, assist, but it's not a formal alliance as much as having a mutual enemy and mutual respect for one another.
Angrish: Belisarius is reduced to this in Destiny's Shield, when Antonina refuses to take along guards on her trip to Egypt.
Ancient Grome: Averted, but an author's note had to be put in to address fans who thought this was in effect due to the Byzantine Empire being a mostly Greek empire that still calls itself the Roman Empire.
Animal Metaphor: Almost every character: mongoose, weasel, hawk, owl, panther, tiger...
Valentinian is compared with both a mongoose and weasal, Belisarius a couple times with a mongoose, Michael of Macedonia with a hawk, his friend Bishop Cassian with an owl, both Oesanus and Rao with panthers, Sanga with a tiger, Sittas with a wild boar. Antonina is compared with a shark once.
Antivillain: Narses, despite his treachery, retains sympathy through his good sense and his occasional Pet the Dog moments. In some ways he is a Tragic Villain overcome by his ambition.
Arranged Marriage: Photius and Tahmina, Eon and Rukaiya. And then Ousanas and Rukaiya, after Eon's death.
Badass: Tons. Beginning with Belisarius, but later in the series, there's also the Malwa general Rana Sanga, Belisarius' bodyguard Valentinian, Sanga's rival and Belisarius' ally Raghunath Rao, Ajatasutra the assassin—let's just say the series is full of Badasses and leave it at that.
Bad Boss: Skandagupta, in spades. Link somewhat less so. Venandektra would be a parody were it not for his subordinates suffering in earnest.
Balance of Power: After the war Belisarius supports Rome keeping areas of the Malwa empire that he had conquered, less for the glory of Rome then to make sure that there is another large faction in India to support the Balance of Power. On the other side the Malwa use the Kushans, the Rajputs, and the Ye-tai to balance each other and to jointly keep the proles in their place. Part of Belisarius' plan is to encourage the defection of the first two, who aren't all that fond of the Malwa anyway.
Bavarian Fire Drill: When Belisarius and Shakuntala are trapped in Kausambi, Belisarius escapes by killing a Ye-tai, taking his clothes and doing a Drill Sergeant Nasty routine on any Malwa troops who get in his way, which is easy enough as he is already a military officer and thus has practice at doing that. Shakuntala escapes by disguising herself as a generic princess(easily enough as she really is a princess, but a specific one the Malwa are looking for)disguising Holkar(who is not a nobleman but cultured enough to fake it) as her husband and disguising the defected Kushans as their bodyguard(which is of course what they really are but likewise in a sense different then what Malwa guards and random strangers think).
The main commonality is that both were disguising themselves as someone to important to question, and counting on the soldiers judging that ignoring any suspicions they had would allow them to remain safely inconspicuous while bringing them up was more likly to get them punished for impudence then rewarded for alertness.
Becoming the Mask: While entirely practical about not wanting to waste good talent or upset their notorious honor, after commanding a Rajput army not all of Damodara's decisions could be explained solely by pretending to be honorable.
Aide: A man who rides a tiger long enough begins to think like a tiger himself.
Big Brother Instinct: When Valentinian and Anastasius come to "kidnap" Rana Sanga's family they see Rajiv Sanga in front of his mother and siblings with a knife and find it quite difficult to persuade him of the circumstances.
Bittersweet Ending: Link is destroyed and Aide gains humanity . . . but the victory means that Aide's existence is now a time paradox, so he dies soon after. There's also the loss of all their other beloved friends and comrades, but the future—for now—looks bright.
Blood-Splattered Warrior: Rana Sanga is seen like this at one time. It is specially noted that none of the blood is Sangas.
Boring, but Practical: While Aide does help the Romans make gunpowder weapons, he also gives them boring but practical advances with things like stirrups: easy to makes, simple to use, and instantly makes your cavalry far more effective.
The Butcher: Deconstructed. It is commented that if Venandektra had been called "The Cruel" or something similar it might imply that people think him a Magnificent Bastard even if they hate him. But no one respects someone called "The Vile".
Byzantines Speaking English: Some of the jokes-like Anastasius' constant puns about Valentinian's murmering-are language games and therefore inexplicable outside the assumption that the characters are speaking English.
Call That A Formation: Well dealt with. More then once a properly dressed formation rolls over a battered or ill-disciplined one like a steamroller. Roman cataphracts are specifically noted as not advancing at a gallop lest they become disoriented.
The Cavalry : Damadaras army arives in time to save Lady Damadara and Lady Sanga. They are composed of Rajputs so they really are cavalry.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Narses is the most loyal spymaster one can hire so long as there's something actually worth intriguing for, but betrays his current employer whenever the struggle is won and it's time to rest and enjoy the fruits of success. This is because he only cares about the game, and success bores the pants off of him. His final employer (and he goes through several in the series) proves Genre Savvy enough in the end to arrange for Narses to seek new independent business opportunities in a distant country, the instant the war is over. Not coincidentally, this is the only employer Narses didn't end up betraying and trying to have murdered.
Belisarius versus Damodara in Fortune's Stroke. Rana Sanga versus Valentinian.
When Rana Sanga is fighting Valentinian the Rajputs consider this their special moment. To the point of shoving out any Malwa who wish to come and watch except those few who have proven their valor by Rajput standards.
Even an unnamed Malwa bodyguard gets one; when Belisarius, reminded he's carrying a tiny knife for sharpening pens, says he supposes it could kill a chicken — after a fierce battle — the guard says the chicken would win.
Aide is one of the best at this, even though when he started he didn't even know how to directly communicate with people.
Rana Sanga's Pathan guide. He is nominally a slave and serves Rana Sanga faithfully because Rana Sanga took him captive and treated him well. The Pathan figures that anyone who can defeat him deserves his Undying Loyalty.
The Kushan forces in the Malwan army do this for Belisarius.
Subverted. Holkar's daughters are afraid this will happen to them because they have been made Sex Slaves. Instead Valentinian and Anastasius marry them, they are welcomed back by their father, supported by Shakuntala, their past is covered up by Adjutasutra's machinations and no one who knows about it says anything for obvious reasons.
In Belisarius' dream, Rao actually hopes Shakuntala won't resist Venandekatra because he doesn't care about all that but cares about her life. Shakuntala however turns out to be of different mind, rather to Venandekatra's regret.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: Even the good guys can be remarkably cavalier about human life. An interesting example of in-verse Values Dissonance comes toward the end when Belisarius orders rebelling Rajputs to burn out the country to deprive the Malwans of forage. Belisarius dislikes giving the order because it's hard luck on the peasants. The Rajputs dislike carrying it out because it is an unsportsmanlike way to fight.
Dope Slap: As dawazz to Prince Eon, it was part of Ousanas' job to deliver one of these whenever Eon needed correcting in his behavior.
Drowning My Sorrows: It became something of a tradition of Antonina's, when Belisarius goes away on a potentially hopeless mission against the Malwa, to get thoroughly trashed, accompanied by Irene.
Duel to the Death: Invoked, and averted. Valentinian fights Rana Sanga in a three hour duel, after which Rana Sanga cracks his skull and decides to end the duel without sullying it by executing a Worthy Opponent. Averted completely in Raghunath Rao and Rana Sanga's duel in The Dance of Time. They fought a legendary duel in their youth, which is described as a day-long affair they began mounted, on foot and finally, exhausted, exchanging philosophical barbs. In the second duel, Raghunath Rao disarms himself, leaving himself at Rana Sanga's mercy. Damodara intervenes and stops the duel, to Sanga's relief, who is trapped between his duty to Malwa, respect for Rao, and his honour.
Due to the Dead: At the beginning of Fortune's Stroke Rana Sanga goes out of his way to make sure that fallen Persian warriors are treated according to Zoroastrian custom.
Even Evil Has Standards: Narses refuses to assassinate the families of Damodara and Rana Sanga, but instead spirits them away to where they can be safe. It is not said whether this is out of standards or because he thought he might have use for them later. Or maybe both. Or maybe he was just so disgusted with Malwan incompetence that he wanted to at least have an efficient master. It is hard to tell what lurks in his convoluted mind.
Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: The other reason (see Indy Ploy below) why Link consistently loses battles of wits with Belisarius, despite being a hyperintelligent AI. Link is not human, cannot even remotely understand humans, and reduces all questions of human psychology to statistical analysis and amoral self-interest. This worked fine for it as long as Link was dealing with large masses of downtrodden populations and/or the ruthless, self-centered Malwa royal elite. It failed epically when confronting actual heroes. Ironically this is also why Link got schooled by Narses, despite the fact that Narses is himself thoroughly evil. He was just the kind of evil that comprehended good perfectly fine, thank you.
Belisarius uses it on Damodara to get a quiet word with Narses, who then drops the hint to Damodara regarding Rana Sanga's oath to obey the emperor. and Damodara in turn uses it to give Narses the go-ahead to do what he does best. Damodara also lets Belisarius know that he approves of the plan by saying that he hopes Belisarius is "a man with a proper respect for grammar".
In a minor moment of awesome Rana Sanga is told to flog the guards who let Belisarius escape. As Rana Sanga didn't really think it their fault he gave them each two nominal blows with his quirt. In retrospect that might have been more dangerous for the guards as someone might have noticed the lack of scars.
Ye-tai general Toramana promised Nanda Lal that he'd be at the general's wedding to Rana Sanga's sister. Toramana later points out to Sanga that he made no guarantees that Lal would be able to flatter the bride. His head attends. In a jar.
Geeky Turn-On: When Irene tells how many books she owns, John of Rhodes says "Marry me!"
Invoked by Antonia. A big part of why she chose Rukaiya as Eon's wife.
Genius Bruiser: Ousanas, Eon, Raghunath Rao, Anastasius... there are almost more genius bruisers named in this series than ordinary ones. Rana Sanga and Kungas are also bruisers who are very intelligent, if not outright geniuses.
Genre Busting: At first glance it is simply intended to be a series of entertaining thought exercises in geek militarism. However it really goes on to become something very close to an epic.
God Save Us From The Queen: Although an extraordinarily competent administrator, Empress Regent Theodora's temper is such that she's repeatedly just on the verge of lapsing into this and having to be restrained from it by her loyal advisers. By the end of the series her immediate subordinates have resorted to simply deciding things on their own and then spending the rest of their time planning how to talk Theodora into it ex post facto. This ultimately leads to the hilarious extreme of "Send Justinian in first, he's the only one of us she won't try to have executed."
Grey and Black Morality: The good guys are medieval people and tend to act like it in most ways. However the author goes far out of his way to make sure the bad guys are properly "evilized".
Hand Cannon: Antonina gets a hold of a double barreled pistol about half-way through the series.
Belisarius, Antonina, Justinian, Theodora, Sittas, Narses, John of Cappadocia, Kaleb of Axum, Khusrau, and Baresmanas were all real people.
For that matter, the Nika revolt was a real historical event, though not manipulated by agents of a time-traveling monster robot as far as we know. Likewise the Battle of Mindouos is almost a copy of the Battle of Dara, and Belisarius caught the Persians in a similar if not exact ambush in that battle in Real Life.
Hollywood Cyborg: Link. The actual machinery, it's pointed out, is elsewhere, while Link itself lives in specially prepared dynastic females when their predecessors die. Noted by several characters are the hosts' empty eyes. Of course, without the machines, it's stuck in the body until it dies or it manages to build new machines.
Rajputs. Which is why they don't like Malwa as their Feudal Overlord. Malwa has no honor.
Romans have a different sort of honor, as the Rajputs note. It is a reasonable honor and thus not as extreme as the Rajput variety. But it is there. Which is why Rajputs like Romans better then Malwans.
Honorable Marriage Proposal: One of Antonina's old collegues is taken as maid. When she becomes pregnant a soldier gallantly offers to marry her thinking after all he might really be the father.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold: It's significant to the backstory that both the Empress Theodora and Antonina start this way. One of the reasons Justinian seized the throne was to rewrite the laws to allow him to marry Theodora.
I Cannot Self-Terminate: In a possible future, Belisarius and Justinian ask Rao to kill them to so that they won't be captured by the Malwa and won't have to commit the mortal sin of suicide.
Belisarius is just as good at inspired improvisation as he is at detailed planning. Lampshaded in that this specific quality is pointed up as to how he is able to consistently outperform a hyperintelligent cyborg capable of calculating all foreseeable contingencies to the zillionth decimal place — Belisarius is capable of improvising brilliantly when the "fog of war" throws up an unexpected complication, and Link isn't. As soon as Belisarius figures this out he starts deliberately encouraging chaos and confusion in the war, as he's far better at functioning in it.
While Link itself is probably as good a general as any in the series and reacts pretty well when surprises do come, the entire Malwa leadership structure is handicapped by their over-reliance on the supercomputer cyborg and a tendency to punish independent thinking and capability. This leads to the situation where the Malwa government is riddled with incompetents aside from a few, and since Link can't be everywhere at once, it allows Belisarius' side to pick away at the Malwa empire.
Lady of War: Antonina, Empress Shakuntala, Irene especially toward the end; for most of it she was mainly a lady of intrigue.
Lampshade Hanging: The author often uses this whenever it is starting to feel like a convention from a traditional epic. For instance when horsemen go on a glorious charge, it is commented that Upper Class Twits are too obsessed with these, glorious charges are rather rare, and this instance was only because a perfectly sensible general had managed to see one of the few occasions where it was a good idea.
Man of Wealth and Taste: The Persian noble Kurush is so rich that his Roman guests are afraid to drink lest they drop one of his expensive glasses. The Romans are then assured to know that he had two chests full of them. And they are further assured that he is so rich that he hadn't bothered to find out how much his wine glasses cost. However despite his taste for finer things Kurush is a skillful and experienced warrior.
The Medic: Anna. While going through Belisarius's supply lines she visits field hospitals plagued by lazy surgeons and gives them a full-out Drill Sergeant Nasty treatment.
Mercy Kill: When Belisarius is trying to evacuate the very badly abused female survivors of the city of Charax, twelve of them are so close to death that there doesn't seem any way to move them. One of the other survivors simply picks up a knife, stone-faced, and orders everyone else out of the room.
Eon's servants are questioned about this before his coronation. The idea is that a ruler who is not nice to his servants probably won't be nice to his subjects. As it happens, Eon passes perfectly.
It's noted that weapons designer John of Rhodes is the sort of man who's only rude to his social equals or superiors. And then there's Kungas, whose character is revealed to Raghunath Rao when he walks into a room, swiftly assesses where he'll need to post guards, curtly gives his soldiers the orders to post those guards, and then leads them slowly and carefully across the room ... so they won't scuff the floor a servant was polishing just then.
Old Soldier: Valentinian, just to start, although Maurice fits the trope slightly better. He's eternally pessimistic (to the point where it's a Running Gag) and he's been Belisarius's XO since the latter joined the army.
Onrushing Army: Done only a few times by the good guys. One occasion is at the end where the Malwans are battered and the defecting Rajputs are eager to gallop down on them and Belisarius has set up a good opportunity.
Photius and Tahmina, Eon and Rukaiya, Rana Sanga and his wife, Damodara and his wife. In fact, pretty much every Arranged Marriage in the series, whether on the Indian or Roman side, is perfectly happy.
Played with with Calopodius the Blind and Anna. Theirs was a purely politico-economic marriage, and both didn't particularly care for each other. He had one night with her before going off to war, and she stews bitterly afterward until she decides to track him down to the front to demand a divorce. To get there, however, she needs to pretend to be the dedicated wife of the now-popular Calopodius to get soldiers to help her. To do that, she grudgingly begins a correspondence with him. In the course of their long correspondence, they fall genuinely in love.
The Plan: First rescuing Shakuntala, then stopping the Malwan invasion by trapping Link's army in Mesopatamia without supplies, and checking Damadora's army (but leaving it intact), then collaborating in Damadora's defection and Narses' re-defection, the whole series is one of these, almost reaching Gambit Roulette territory. Indeed Narses seems to have believed Belisarius plotted the whole thing even if some of it happened by good luck.
Playing Drunk: In An Oblique Approach, part of the plan of Belisarius involves playing at being a drunken sot to fool Lord Venandakatra into thinking he was going to corrupt the general into the Malwa Empire's plans to conquer the world. To himself, Belisarius scornfully thinks that because of his country boy youth, he could have drunken Venandakatra under the table at the age of ten.
Politically Incorrect Villain: Link goes back in time to make sure bigotry is assured in all its glory. Even to the point of having a militarily incompetent empire.
Police Are Useless: Apparently if someone is on the run in the Malwan capital the only thing the local garrison knows how to do is to mill around like an ant colony after someone poked a stick into it.
Professional Killer: Assassins appear in various guises. Some are thugs-for-hire who usually regret their job but Indian ones often appear in the train of powerful people, and it is sometimes implied that they are martial arts experts similar to Ninja. Rao and Shakuntala, for instance, are both trained in assassin skills.
Plunder: Belisarius has specific rules about this. It is all right to take this from the enemy when fairly distributed after the campaign is over. If soldiers just go off on their own they will hurt civilians and hurt the army's discipline as well.
Proud Warrior Race: Persians, Rajputs, Axumites—oh heck, this story is crawling with proud warrior race guys.
Rajputs agreed to serve the Malwa empire, but are never really trusted, and generally treated poorly by them.
A more interesting example is Kungas' relation with the local tribes. One Army Scout calls him "Great King". Kungas notes that he is specifically saying in a complicated manner that Kungas is not his king because his loyalty is given to his tribe-but that he is obeying Kungas because he is now the Feudal Overlord of his tribe.
While the good guys have them in charge, generally speaking, the notable example is Damodara simply because not only is he on the side of the bad guys, he's one of their most senior leaders.
Even Theodora and Justinian are generally reasonable in the sense of being rational. They aren't kind, but they are sensible, not usually sadistic (except when going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, as Theodora did at the end of the second volume), and if they are not good rulers per se, they at least have a good understanding of the Evil Overlord List.
Royal Brat: Malwa princes are this—to the point of bringing ridiculously luxurious and impractical mobile palaces to the battlefield. They stay too far away from any danger and hardship to be effective commanders.
Schizo Tech: Roman Legions coexisting beside steam-powered ironclad gunships and riflemen, as the entire premise of the series. It handles it in a realistic manner too - as you see Link and Belisarius attempting to one-up each other throughout the series. Belisarius makes a point of grooming the officers who can see the potential in the new weapons.
Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Aide's purpose to time travel. Later subverted into not just fixing history, but making it better. A stable Roman Empire in the 6th century with extensive trading networks across the middle east to India and Ethiopia. Link and the New Gods believe they're doing this as well. It's just that their idea of "right" is a cruel, violent eugenics program designed to weed out huge masses of people they view as undesirable.
Sex Slave: The normal fate of any woman in the path of the Malwa. In the good guy empires concubinage is also practiced but in that case it means roughly "woman a little like slave, a little like mistress, and a little like wife" and is often an honorable position-it is possible to actually be invited to be a concubine among the Axumites, Maratha, or Persians whereas no one would possibly find the position of Malwan Sex Slave attractive.
Sex Is Good/Sex Is Evil : For good people it is romantic. Bad guys rape for the fun of causing pain even when they are so powerful they can just command it.
The Smart Guy: Aide helps not only Belisarius, but others with knowledge from the future, allowing technological advancement far more quickly than in the original timeline.
Stupid Evil: Actually, the Malwa come across as way too stupid for an Empire commanded by a superbeing from millions of years in the future, even granted the fact that Link doesn't care about the lives of its minions. It helps that it discourages initiative and independent thought. In the sixth book, it's even noted that most of the competent or intelligent officers were sent to the front and killed.
Suddenly Suitable Suitor: Rao and Shakuntala, except that she decides, after talking with Irene and Kungas and some sould-searching, to ignore the rules and marry him anyway for the sake of strengthening her political position as well as being what she really wanted to do anyway. (After spending 4 books pining over not being able to marry him, though.)
Suffer The Slings: The Theodoran Cohort uses slings and sling staffs to allow them to throw their grenades farther than by hand alone.
Techno Wizard: Rome. The Malwans have a head start, but once the Romans understand what's going on they actually make better versions of future weapons.
Tempting Fate: In The Tide of Victory, the allied fleet attacks a Malwa harbor with their new cannon-armed warships. When the Malwa siege gun guarding the harbor finally fires, John of Rhodes assures a companion that they couldn't possibly hit anything on their first shot, in a night engagement. A moment later, the companion finds themself knocked on their back by the cannonball striking the ship, killing John as well with a direct hit where he was standing.
Terminator Twosome: Link versus Aide, on a grander scale than usually covered by the trope.
Time Travel: Central to the Plot Premise, although the future advisors are shown as already present in the past when the story starts.
To the Pain: According to Rao it is part of the assassin's code to kill unusually distasteful targets by paralyzing them and then letting them bleed to death.
Training the Peaceful Villagers: The Theodoran Cohort, consisting of Syrian herders and their wives brought into military service to bolster Roman forces, using the new grenades developed with the assistance of Aide.
Transhuman Aliens: all of humanity millions of years in the future, diverged into uncountable descendant species; in particular the New Gods and the not-even-biological Great Ones.
True Companions: Belisarius's subordinates. Belisarius notes this himself several times, and attributes his victories to his ability to select intelligent subordinates and to instill loyalty in his Thracian cataphracts.
Try to Fit That on a Business Card: While Eon's full name, Eon Bisi Dakuen, is brief, that of his father, the king of the Ethiopians, is not. The formal name: Kaleb Ella Atsbeha, son of Tazena, Bisi Lazen, King of Axum, Himryar, Dhu Raydan, Saba, Salhen, the High Country and Yamanat, the Coastal Plain, Hadramawt, and all their Arabs, the Beja, Noba, Kasu, and Siyamo, servant of Christ. Eon's son would have a longer name as the Axumites ended the war with rather more territory.
Urban Warfare: The revolts in Constantinople and Alexandria, the Siege of Charax, the storming of Kausimbi. Especially Charax, with the Real Life battle for Stalingrad during WW 2 mentioned as the inspiration for Belisarius.
The Uriah Gambit: Khusrau thinks cavalry charges against fortified defenders armed with rifles is a great way of dealing with disloyal and/or arrogant reactionary nobles, and to provide a distraction for more useful forces.
Victory By Endurance: Valentinian's usual strategy. His attempt to defy this in battle with Rana Sanga does not work out so well.
Waif-Fu: Played realistically with Shakuntala. Yes, she was trained from age seven by one of the most fearsome warriors in India. Yes, she is extraordinarily fast and nimble. Yes, she is phenomenally strong for her size. However the inherent limits of being a short and slightly built (read: 90 pounds soaking wet, tops) woman are routinely addressed.
Wife Husbandry: Irene, Rome's spymaster has to bully Empress Shakuntala into marrying Raghunath Rao, the great warrior assassin who raised her and trained her, even though they both want it. Made somewhat less troubling by the facts that Shakuntala was twenty years old at her wedding, at least one of her other possible royal suitors were also Rao's age, and Rao at least was the man she wanted to marry instead of one of her many impending possible arranged marriages.
Rana Sanga, to Belisarius, Raghunath Rao, and Valentinian. He has the latter healed and treats him as an honored guest after (just barely) defeating him in single combat and taking him prisoner; when Sanga's army is forced to retreat from the invasion of Persia, he releases Valentinian. In the last two books, Valentinian's role in protecting Sanga's wife and children from a plot against them by Link and the Malwa dynasty is key to Sanga's Heel Face Turn, and he eventually sends his own son and heir to be Valentinian's apprentice in the art of combat.
In the first book, Kungas to Raghunath Rao, prior to Kungas's Heel Face Turn.
You No Take Candle: Subverted with Ousanas; he initially speaks this way, but halfway through the book it's revealed as a ruse; he's actually quite eloquent and well-spoken. He sometimes drops back into the pidgin as a joke or to emphasize how stupid he thinks the targeted person is being, however.