Theodora, born circa 500 A.D. in Constantinople, was born into a performing family. Her mother, Hypatria, hoped to keep her daughters away from careers as performers. While this would provide them with stable money it would also place them in a hard life they could not come back from. Performers, especially singers, dancers and actresses, were responsible for entertaining men on stage and off, using their fined-tuned skills to impress their paying customers in bed. By law. performers were also banned from legally getting married.
When Theodora’s father is killed, Hypatia is forced to send her daughters to be trained by the vicious but talented eunich trainer, Menander. While this would break most girls and turn them against their trainer, Theodora refuses to reign in her fire and becomes incredibly attached to her abusive mentor. Under Menander’s tutelage and with the help of a saucy dwarf named Sophia, Theodora becomes a celebrated actress and whore and basks in the glow of her admirers.
When Theodora’s lover, Hecebolus, is given the job of Governor of the Pentapolis in Africa, she jumps at the chance to follow him. Neither Africa, nor Hecebolus, turns out to be very good to Theodora and she sets off for home, armed with her many skills and stolen goods from not only Hecebolus but a Bishop. Afraid her thievery will land her in trouble, she looks for help in Alexandria.
Finding little help on her quest back to Constantinople, she comes under the guidance of Timothy, Patriarch of Alexandria who agrees to help Theodora after she seeks true penitence for her sins in the dessert. After experiencing a sort of epiphany in a desolate cave, she agrees to work for Timothy to spread their religious views. Becoming quite happy in her new role and able to once again utilize the skills she was trained for but now for a better cause, she is finally asked to head back to Constantinople to become useful to the Emperor Justin’s nephew, Justinian. Justinian is set to become Emperor next and Timothy wants Theodora to have his ear.
What she finds in Justinian is not another man who wishes to use her, as every other man she has come across does, but a friend who values her mind above her body. They form a bond that not only ties Theodora to Justinian but causes him to seek to change the laws so she can become his legal wife. When this occurs, and when Justinian becomes Emperor, Theodora finds herself on the greatest stage of all, risen from lowly actress and whore to the greatest woman in the Empire.
Knowing nothing of Theodora and very little of the time period, I found it slightly disappointing that the characters all come off quite manipulative and self-centered. While I understand the hard lives and warring religious factions would breed this sort of cynicism, I really could not find much to like in Theodora. She seemed to crave brutality over kindness for much of the book and never pays much attention to her only daughter, whom she doesn’t even attempt to have a relationship with. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the book reads like you are supposed to be rooting for Theodora when she does very little to make you want to do so.
That being said, I really enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the settings and the excitement of the theatre. She has no problem making you feel like you are one more spectator of the wild ride that is Theodora. I look forward to seeing what Stella Duffy has next to offer.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son and pet fish. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
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Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.