The Eagle and the Swan by Carol Strickland
Author: Carol Strickland
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 6th Century / Byzantium / Court Intrigue / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Empress Theodora / Sex Worker)
Publisher/Publication Date: Erudition Digital (11/7/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of how two unlikely figures ascended into power and eventually become Emperor and Empress in 6th century Turkey.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I adore it. It harkens to the title as well as Theodora's infamous performance.
I'm reminded of...: Donna Russo Morin, Mingmei Yip
First line: It's a stronger pull than the tide, but beauty's only part of it.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.
Why did I get this book?: I'm a huge Theodora fangirl.
Review: I must admit I'm always reluctant to pick up a historical novel about a historical figure if I've already read an amazing book about her or him. In this case, having devoured and adored Stephanie Thornton's novel on the Empress Theodora, I was nervous that this book would pale in comparison.
I need not have worried, for this novel provides a delicious, racy, personality-filled sibling to Thornton's book, and offers another take on this infamous prostitute-turned-empress.
Penned by a monk, Fabianus, who is a childhood friend of Theodora's, the novel is split between covering her life, from circus child to prostitute to consort of the Emperor; and detailing how Justinian, the son of a pig herder from a rural province, became Emperor.
The narrative style is wonderfully playfully: our scribe, Fabianus, shares his apprehensions in doing justice to Theodora's story (and the ways she still affects him); Theodora is brassy and bold and bombastic, always in motion, theatrical. The cadre of men involved with the Emperor are selfish and weak-willed or clever and grasping. There's drama in spades, ranging from court intrigue to the various tribulations Theodora faces on her way to becoming Justinian's beloved.
The story shifts from the present -- Theodora telling her story to Fabianus -- to the past, as Fabianus fills in the empty spaces to help the reader along. Sometimes this can be jarring and disruptive, but in this case, I found the shifts smooth and unobtrusive, and they helped build up tension.
The historical landscape is effectively evoked -- Strickland's experience in writing about art and architecture can be seen in the descriptions of things -- and I loved every grimy, grandiose minute in 6th century Constantinople.
Strickland's Theodora is a different animal than Thornton's, but I loved her as much as I did her other incarnation. Strickland is unabashed in noting Theodora's sex work, and while there's nothing clinical or detailed about how sex is portrayed in this novel, it is very much present. I loved the unapologetic way Theodora talks about herself and her life, and more than once I snorted at one of her snarky digs and comments.
This edition includes some book club questions but is missing my favorite part of any historical novel, an Author's Note or Historical Note, identifying what is fiction and what is fact.
There's an enhanced e-book in the works, according to a publisher's note in this; Part One is available as a free download from the publisher.
On a different note: I didn't know this when I accepted this book for review, but Strickland is also the author of a beloved favorite of mine, The Annotated Mona Lisa. It was gifted to me when I was 12 or 13, and shaped my passion for art. I can't rave enough about this book, and if you are curious about art or have a budding art fan in your life, consider gifting it.
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I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO readers an e-book copy of The Eagle and the Swan. To enter, please fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/11.