(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
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?
Having read The Tiger Queens and Daughter of the Gods by Stephanie Thornton, I was so excited when I finally got my hands on her first book, The Secret History. I know pretty much nothing about the Byzantine empire (my specialty being ancient Rome, its precursor) so I was very eager to start on the book. Whatever I expected going into the book, I sure was surprised at the actual story.
Theodora’s rise from the slums to the theaters of Constantinople all the way to the side of the Emperor is not glorious. She spends a lot of time in the slums and the lowly theater servicing men of every kind for money just to make ends meet. Not only that, she’s not deemed pretty enough for the main parts on the stage like her sister so even her acting career is going nowhere. But Theodora is one of these characters that will just not give up. She finagles her way into giving a very risqué performance at the theater and thus catapults herself into the upper echelons of power as a courtesan. When she thinks she finally finds a wealthy protector, one that she might actually like, everything turns out terribly. Yet Theodora goes on, powered by a driving love for her children and her life. She has so many setbacks and tragedies in her life until finally, she meets Justin, the Emperor’s nephew. Justin was really quite a surprising figure because I knew a little about him but his relationship with Theodora was just as fascinating as his politics.
Stephanie Thornton in her debut novel (as with all of her later novels) brings the ancient world to life. The Byzantine empire comes to life in all of its glamorous and conversely gritty, horrific splendor. There’s a very sharp contrast from the streets of the slums where Theodora lives as a teenager to the opulence of the imperial palace. The world of the poor is far from glorious, that’s for sure, and again Thornton brings to life the hardships these people faced every single day without beating you over the head with the obvious stick. As for historical accuracy, as with all of her novels Thornton does really well with the details while filling in some of the blank spots in the historical record with fairly plausible events. It doesn’t help that our main source for the time, the one who wrote the original Secret History, hated Theodora with a passion. I guess that just further demonstrates the ancient attitudes toward women as well as the attitudes of the rich toward the poor.
The plot is not fast-paced by any means, but it doesn’t exactly drag on and on like some novels. We get enough of Theodora to enjoy the novel and enough background information to understand the times she lived in and appreciate just how incredible a woman she was to become Empress. She isn’t perfect and sometimes makes some bad decisions in regards to her family and her relationships, but I honestly can’t fault her for that. We all screw up sometimes and do things we regret. Through it all—the intrigue, the family strife, the political and social upheavals—Theodora shines through as a woman utterly devoted to those she loves, even if she doesn’t always do the seemingly ‘right’ thing. You can’t help but love a character like that.
Basically, I am so glad that I finally got my hands on a copy of The Secret History. Theodora is one of my new favourite characters and I learned so much about the Byzantine Empire. What more can you ask for in historical fiction?
I give this book 5/5 stars.