Book Tour Review: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton

Monday, July 22, 2013
Title: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Author: Stephanie Thornton
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Published: July 2nd 2013
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 5/5

Where Theodora went, trouble followed…

In sixth century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds, and rose from being a common theater tart to become empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know. But the woman whose image was later immortalized in glittering mosaic was, in fact, a scrappy, clever, conniving, flesh-and-blood woman full of sensuality and spirit whose real story is as surprising as any ever told…

When her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation on the streets. Determined to survive, Theodora makes a living any way she can—first on her back with every man who will have her, then on the stage of the city’s infamous amphitheater in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention. When her daring performance grants her a back-door entry into the halls of power, she seizes the chance to win a wealthy protector—only to face heartbreak and betrayal.

Ever resilient, Theodora rises above such trials and by a twist of fate, meets her most passionate admirer yet: the Emperor’s nephew. She will thrive as his confidant and courtesan, but many challenges lie ahead. For one day, this man will hand her a crown. And all the empire will wonder—is she bold enough, shrewd enough, and strong enough to keep it?

 "I both dreaded and feared to reach so high. It only meant I had further to fall."
The Secret History, p.254

Stephanie Thornton proves that not all debut novels have to feel and read like debuts. The Secret History is a dense, detailed, atmospheric, and just an endlessly fascinating look at one of history's forgotten women. In a time where a woman was property, with little to no power of her own, this pleb-turned-patrician created her own opportunities and seized power for herself and her husband. Thornton ably recreates Theodora's tumultuous life from early age, steeped in poverty, to her triumphant, if troubled, reign as Augusta of the Byzantine Empire. Though this passionate and intelligent Empress has been largely overlooked by most historians and historical fiction writers, and even though I already knew her life story before reading The Secret History, this is a book that makes reading this unlikely pauper-to-princess tale firsthand utterly compelling.

This is a book that takes many harsh turns over the course of its 450 pages; there is rape, abuse, torture, prostitution, and endless extramarital affairs. However this is not a salacious novel - whatever Theodora had to do to survive, she did. Though she was many things - intelligent, stubborn, secretive, pragmatic, quick-tempered, brave, arrogant - above all, she was a survivor. Cast into poverty by her father's death and her abandonment by her political faction, Theodora and her sister Comito become actresses to help their mother and younger sister live. Her life may not always be easy to read about (from the clinical, cold loss of her virginity, to her abuse and abandonment in a foreign port at only 16) but Thornton builds from these desperate situations to recreate a version of the woman who was smart and wanted much more than to be a pawn of the men in her life and bed. From those who loved and supported her to those her saw her as no more than an up-jumped whore, you could not deny that Theodora was always a woman to be reckoned with.

Theodora as the main character and first person narrator is the best part of The Secret History. Through her observant eyes, the reader gets a vivid look at life in different stations during Constantinople under the reign of three different Emperors (Anastasius, Justin, and her husband Justinian). From poverty to notoriety to infamy, Theodora could not be ignored by her society as she made her way toward Justinian and eventually the throne. She is captivating and compelling, even when she is at her worst or when she makes the wrong decision. The characterization of Theodora evolves deftly throughout the narrative; from the beginning it is obvious that Thornton has a passion for crafting well-defined and multi-dimensional characters. Her Theodora is smart and strong-willed, but she is far from perfect and thus much more interesting to read about.

There is an abundance of well-defined characters in the book.  The secondary characters of Antonina and Justinian especially reap the benefits of Thornton's strong characterization. The relationships the Theodora forges with each are complicated - Anotinia evolves from a one-note antagonist to a close friend and helpful supporter. Stephanie Thornton takes extra time and detail to craft a faithful but interesting representation of the Emperor Justinian. Of all the things shown about this ambitious man, his love for Theodora is paramount and The Secret History subtly takes care to show how his regard for his wife both helps and hurts his goals as Emperor. Their relationship goes through phases of struggle and accord, but through it all, Thornton shows Theodora to be the equal of her imperial husband in every way. Even when they find themselves at odds, the relationship between them is complex and engaging to read about.

Politics play a huge part in the life of Theodora and in the main plot of the novel. Weaving in historical events - the Nika riots, the general Belisarius's threat to her/Justinian's reign, etc. - within the narrative frame, the author recreates political intrigue with personal struggle equally well. A huge strength of the The Secret History is that the story is just as compelling when it focuses on the machinations and schemes of those factions that surround the Augustus and his Augusta. The details and aims for opposing factions can make for a bit of drier reading, but the author doesn't linger overlong on ancient political agendas. And though Theodora is remembered for her support of Miaphysite Christianity, religion is also not a huge aspect of the novel.

Stephanie Thornton skillfully interweaves fact with fiction, supposition with authorial discretion, all to the benefit of the novel. As the immensely readable author's note says, Thornton takes history into her own hands to fashion a better narrative for her readers. Certain characters have liberties taken with their actions and history, but it fosters more conflict for Theodora to contend with as the novel winds to a close. New reasons are created for actions not explained historically, and the decisions Thornton makes allow for a more cohesive view of Theodora and Justinian's lives.

The first in a series about some of history's "forgotten women", The Secret History is impressive. It's a great launching point for such a series and under this author's talented vision, I have complete faith the sequels (about Hatshepsut, and Genghis Khan's wife and daughters) will be just as detailed and engrossing. A full 5/5 stars, for while minor issues pop up (pacing), this is one of the best historical fiction novels I've had the pleasure to read. Ever. Readers will be entertained by this interesting, complicated, powerful woman who seized the opportunities that came her way, regardless of how society thought she should behave. Theodora is a fascinating woman and Stephanie Thornton's version is a well-rendered and thoughtful depiction of both her and her remarkable life. 

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Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Tuesday, June 25
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Wednesday, June 26
Review & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, June 27
Review & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court

Monday, July 1
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

Tuesday, July 2
Review at Let Them Read Books

Wednesday, July 3
Review at Book Journey

Friday, July 5
Review at Layered Pages

Monday, July 8
Review at Book Lovers Paradise

Tuesday, July 9
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair

Friday, July 12
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Tuesday, July 16
Review at Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, July 17
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Thursday, July 18
Review & Guest Post at The Lit Bitch

Friday, July 19
Interview & Giveaway at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books

Monday, July 22
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews

Wednesday, July 24
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

Thursday, July 25
Review, Interview & Giveaway at Enchanted by Josephine

Friday, July 26
Interview at A Bookish Libraria

Monday, July 29
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict

Thursday, August 1
Review at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books

Friday, August 2
Review & Giveaway at Bippity Boppity Book

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review -- you summed it up beautiful. I inhaled this one -- I just loved how Thornton articulated everyone -- given how ... discomforting ... some of the aspects of Theodora's life is, I thought she did a brilliant job making it real, human, and resonant.


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