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Reviewed by Colleen Turner

The Purple Shroud, the follow up to Stella Duffy’s Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, begins five years into Justinian I’s reign as Emperor. It has been eleven years since Theodora was brought to the palace and her life irrevocably changed. She is now Empress, with all the riches, security and power that the title entails. She is greatly loved and respected by her husband and marginally so by the others that surround them, always seeking the ear and good wishes of the Augusts.

However, with all the influence and safety of her new life, the loss of her freedom and privacy make the palace a gilded prison where the real Theodora must stay hidden. Still, she plays her part as dutiful wife to the Emperor well and does everything to keep her husband’s needs at the forefront while still making what changes she can for the people of Constantinople, especially those seeking to escape a life similar to the one Theodora lived not that long before.

Theodora’s ability to know the wills and minds of her people becomes especially important when the favor of Constantinople’s citizens begins to shift away from Justinian. Justinian’s ultimate goal of revitalizing Rome into one cohesive unit – one Empire, one Church – seems to do more to divide its citizens than to unite them. The slow and expensive building projects and constant wars demand an increase in taxes for Constantinople’s citizens, even as many of its soldiers are not paid their proper wages. Strict religious laws further restrict people who are quickly feeling like the Emperor cares more for the Empire as a whole than the people living and dying right in front of him. When the hatred existing between the city’s two main factions – the Blues and the Greens – further escalates and the palace steps in to punish those from both sides breaking the law, the two parties finally come together as one, unified against their Emperor.

As the citizens riot to make their demands heard, Theodora’s beloved city burns and is nearly destroyed by its people. When all seems lost and even Justinian believes they will have to flee the palace and give up their places as rulers, it is Theodora’s determination that they must stay and make a stand – to die in power rather than run as cowards – that brings about the end of the rioting and slowly brings the love and respect of the people back to Justinian.

For the rest of her life, through destruction and plague, through growth and rebirth, Theodora stays by Justinian’s side and works tirelessly to align her husband’s goals with that of his people’s. Through it all she learns to open herself up and love those who care for her and distance herself from those that try to bring her down, those that can’t believe that a dancing whore from the streets – Theodora-from-the-brothel – could care for anything more than her own greed. Proving them wrong, Theodora not only improves life for the citizens of Constantinople during her lifetime but sets into motion changes for the future, such as the succession after Justinian, that firmly place her as one of the most influential women in the history of the Roman Empire.

While I enjoyed reading Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, I loved The Purple Shroud. The older, more mature Theodora is so much more compelling a character than the cynical, conniving young Theodora in the first book. She has learned to better control her temper and to use her sharp mind to make the changes necessary for the good of all, not just for her own survival. She shows real remorse for abandoning her daughter to be raised by her sister and seeks out a friendship with her. She tries to make amends for her previous selfishness with a good marriage that will secure her daughter’s place long after she is gone. Above all the love and respect between Justinian and Theodora comes across as truly genuine and Theodora herself comes across as a caring, humane person that I never would have expected after reading the first book.

The beginning of The Purple Shroud gives a short synopsis of Theodora’s early life, allowing the reader to pick it up without having to read Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore first. While the first book is entertaining and will give the reader a firmer sense of where Theodora comes from, The Purple Shroud is by far the better book and can easily be read as a stand-alone. My only complaint is that there are no author notes guiding me towards what are the facts of Theodora’s life and what liberties the author took. That being said, any lover of historical fiction would be remiss to not read more about this incredibly dynamic woman, and The Purple Shroud is a great place to start.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. 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.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.