Review: Theodora by Stella Duffy

Monday, October 10, 2011

Author: Stella Duffy
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 352 (Nook NetGalley edition)
Published: January 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

Theodora was one of the most influential women of her time. As a poverty-stricken dancer, as the most celebrated actress/whore in Constantinople, as a penitent nun in a commune in the desert, and as the wife of the most powerful man in Christendom, she commands attention and vast amounts of interest. Defying social strictures and traditions of her day, Theodora rose from a common birth and life to the most exalted position available: Augusta of "New Rome" also known as Constantinople, the "sparkling gem in a Christian crown" in in 527 AD. Stella Duffy writes an easy-to-read and well-crafted and rounded tale of the infamous woman in one of the most interesting periods of the Roman Empire.

Born the second daughter of three to Acacius and an unknown woman, named Hypatia for this novel, Theodora was born into showbusiness as it was then. Her father was the bear trainer at the infamuous Hippodrome of Constantinople. It is the Hippodrome that is the most important place in Theodora's life: her earliest memories, the death of her father at the hands of his beloved bear, and eventually the site of the greatest triumph of her life: her coronation. Duffy writes Theodora as a determined, intelligent and capable young woman. Not the best singer, not the best dancer or even the prettiest girl, Theodora commands attention and awe from her presence, her wit, her spirit and her sheer ambition. Though the novel begins at age eleven for the protagonist, it is never immature or boring: I was captivated from the start.With a singer for an older sister (Comito) and a beautiful younger sister (Anastasia), Theo turns to her true talent: comedy. With it she makes a name, a fortune and a life she always believed was beyond her. I liked Theodora a lot: I actually wished this was a first-person novel rather than third, though I did get to see and enjoy insight into Justinian as well. She was the only female character I enjoyed, the rest seeming rather hard-bitten and begrudging of Theodora's success, even her sisters. I enjoyed - and believed - the growth and maturity Theodora grows into, especially on her travels from Constantinople. She learns humility, grief and even experiences for the first time a sense of equality while in the desert. For the first time, regardless of her sex or past professions or infamy, Theodora was what she has always sought to be: an equal. It's also terribly interesting to read about a indomitable woman who experiences such a wide range of life: from a whore to a penitent nun in an ascetic community, Theodora remains herself and full of fire. From failed love affairs, to child abandonment issues, Duffy presents Theodora as a complex woman. There is no easy answer to the hows and whys of what Theodora did historically, but the reasons Duffy fabricates/infers are more than adequate and totally believable for her version of the Empress.

Let's talk about Justinian, the Emperor. Presented as a bookish, scholarly but kind man, I initially didn't invest in the relationship between the two. Born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, he was not from Constantinople, an ambitious "foreigner" with a thirst for power "born of a desire for change." A man of strategy rather than force, Justinian quietly emerged as a strong and very likeable character. While their marriage is portrayed initially as more of an alliance to harbor amity between both sides of the religious debate (they were on openly opposing sides of the heated religious debate), it grew into a nice, steady affection and love. The two characters brought out the best in each other: I liked their dynamic and relationship more and more as the novel progressed through their lives together. There is a nice dichotomy between the eventual August and his Augusta as well: Theo is of the City, poor and therefore "one of the people." Justinian represents the other classes of the varied, multi-national Empire: foreigner of the City, rich and royal. Justinian helps Theodora evolve from anti-government to actually being the government, an interesting and hardly believable tale based on fact.

This is a fairly easy read for a historical novel. I found the prose to be a bit stuffy and overloaded from time to time, the dialogue occasionally stilted and unrealistic, but neither issue overwhelmed my enjoyment of the rest of the book. Constantinople itself was one of my favorite parts of the entire thing: it springs to life as much as Theodora and considerably more than the rest of the characters. It is a vibrant city, teeming with life. Contradictorily the Christian capital of the world but still fighting an internal battle over divinity of the Christ, Constantinople is in a constant flux of religious dogma, a microcosm of the entire empire. With the Western side extolling the belief in Christ's humanity AND divinity and the Eastern parts of the Empire contesting He is wholly divine, a schism seems imminent. Between the religious debates and the constant political turmoil and maneuvering of the Blues and the Green, it's easy to see the cracks in the foundation. Duffy does a more than admirable job of explaining the different opinions/beliefs and the reasons for the tensions in the novel without a massive infodump. I will say I didn't like the jumps in the chronology at all: the barely glossed over times ("in those two years....." "For the next three....") because I was interested in a lot of the events/times skipped over.

Love her, hate her, despise her for her less savory acts but you cannot deny Theodora had an impact. On the world, on her Empire, and on religion. An influential woman who refused to stay in her place and do what she was told, I think many historical fiction fans will have fun with this easy-to-read, easily enjoyable novel. Her life began and ended at the famed Hippodrome, but Theodora's legacy and memory still reaches out over 1500 years after she died at the age of approximately 48.


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  2. thanks so much for stopping by! I'll head over to check yours out (and I love the name you came up with!)

  3. I'm finding the writing style a bit stuffy, too -- it's sort of putting me off the book. :/

  4. It's just a bit awkward at times, isn't it? I found the whole encounter with Chrysomallo (if you've read that far) to be utterly humorous... and I don't think that was what the author was going for. It's good, not great is what I should have just written :D


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