The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton
Author: Stephanie Thornton
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Turkey / 6th Century / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Sex Worker / Royalty / Royal Intrigue / Christianity)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL Trade (7/2/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Liked a whole lot!
Did I finish?: I did, in a single night -- couldn't find a place to put the book down!
One-sentence summary: In 6th century Constantinople, a young prostitute rises through the ranks to become Empress of the Roman Empire.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Oh, I do. It's probably not accurate, but oh, it's so exotic and pretty!
I'm reminded of...: Sandra Gulland, Philippa Gregory, Susan Holloway Scott
First line: My life began the night death visited our house.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like historical novels from the early medieval period
Why did I get this book?: Love Empress Theodora!
Review: Empress Theodora began as an actress and prostitute and became Empress of the Roman Empire. Her life reads like a soap opera, and in Thornton's hands, it's a fast, sex-filled (but not necessarily raunchy) historical novel that is perfect for the summer.
Theodora's story is not for prudish. After circumstances force her sister to become an actress -- which was a step up from a street prostitute -- Theodora becomes one as well. Not pretty exactly, but clever and smart, Theodora scrabbles her way to notoriety with a 'reenactment' of the Leda and the swan myth, becoming Constantinople's most talked about courtesan. After having a daughter she can barely care for, Theodora takes up with a merchant patron and leaves Turkey for North Africa, where she endures blackmail and abuse. (I'll admit, this section was almost too hard for me to stomach!)
She's dismissed and abandoned in Alexandria, Egypt, where she meets Severus, the Patriarch of Antioch, who takes her under his wing and tries to direct her toward a religious life. (Theodora, topically Christian, becomes baptized in a sect of Christianity less popular in the Empire.) After her return to Constantinople, a chance encounter with another famed courtesan gives her an introduction to the court of Justinian, the man thought to become Emperor after Justin, and from there, her life takes off in another tumultuous direction.
In a book with a sex worker as a heroine, it's important to me that the author treats our heroine well. However grotesque, grim, unfair, or unpalatable the life, it's crucial the characters be given respect and three-dimensional selves. Thornton does just that without either glorifying or victimizing her characters, and it tipped the book from 'good' to 'great'.
In fact, I found Thornton managed beautifully the dance required of a good historical novel: period details that gave me a sense of the era without overwhelming me, zippy plot that made it impossible for me to slip a bookmark between the pages and stop, and characters that I could respond to and relate with who didn't seem from the future.
That being said, those who are uncomfortable with the realities of life in this era will be, well, uncomfortable! Although Thornton ages Theodora up, children at this time became 'actresses' and prostitutes, and I'm grateful Thornton managed to make me more comfortable without completely anachronizing the era or Theodora's life.
I'd been waiting all year for this debut and it didn't disappoint. A beach-y historical novel in the vein, perhaps, of Philippa Gregory, I was also reminded of Sandra Gulland and Susan Holloway Scott -- authors who have heroines with big personalities and snappy, zippy, almost too-crazy-to-be-believed plot lines. Historical fiction fans should get this, as well as those who are interested in the Byzantine era, and anyone who wants a splashy novel that reads like a sexy tv series.
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I'm thrilled to offer one lucky reader a paperback copy of The Secret History and a Byzantine coin!
To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/2.
Be sure to return tomorrow for an interview with author Stephanie Thornton!