What if Michelangelo had not, as history concurs he had, declined the Sultan’s invitation to come to Constantinople in 1506 to design a bridge over the Golden Horn? This is the conceit behind Mathias Énard’s new novel, or rather novella, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (a perhaps anachronistic borrowing from the preface of a collection of Rudyard Kipling stories). What if Michelangelo had instead accepted?

What do you do when you’re given a magic sword and a “dragon horse”? You sally out into the wicked world, of course, rescue maidens in distress, overthrow evil kings and chop off a great deal of heads while shouting over and over again variations of “Stretch out your neck and receive my sword!” However, as you fight manfully to restore your Crown Prince to his throne, which has been usurped by a wicked, scheming Prime Minister, you demonstrate at the same time the supreme Confucian virtues of filial piety and loyalty as well as respecting your teachers and learning how to become a good judge of people.