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a-secret-history-thorntonReviewed by Colleen Turner

As a reader, I am always excited to find novels written about extraordinary women throughout history. So often the men who changed the world are highlighted and the women relegated to the sidelines as mere footnotes. However, certain women seem to demand more attention by the very nature of their lives and are just waiting for a great writer to come along and share their story. Stephanie Thornton is one such writer and Theodora, a woman who went from begging on the streets and prostituting herself to survive to become one of the most powerful women in the history of the Roman Empire, is one such woman.

Theodora and her mother and sisters found themselves destitute in sixth-century Constantinople after her father’s death and were left with few choices as to how to survive. Theodora’s life was rife with tragedies, betrayals and every possible type of depravation, but she used her brains, beauty and cunning to escape the streets and become the mistress of the future Emperor Justinian. She would sacrifice much for this glittering future – including many years with her children – but once that future was in sight she refused to let it slip away.

Holding on to that power would prove continually troublesome and she would have to face even more loss and betrayal over her lifetime as Empress, but Theodora held on and used her passionate personality to survive while others clamored to bring her down. Amongst all this struggle Theodora found a true love in Justinian, a man who found an equal in Theodora and gave her the real, honest love she had lacked her whole life. During their reign Theodora would save her husband’s crown, bring about favorable changes to the laws regarding women’s rights and would help usher in a rebirth to the Roman Empire that would never be seen again.

The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora brings all of these facts and more to the reader and humanizes a woman that little remains in history about. This Theodora is not without fault, especially when it comes to her fiery temper and her affinity for speaking without letting her head cool her sharp words, but she is also kind and giving to those that prove loyal and is a fighter that refuses to give up or die when it seems she has been given few other choices. Ms. Thornton’s vivid writing makes Theodora’s heartbreakingly painful life crystal clear so that her various triumphs feel bitter sweet and well deserved. Theodora’s snarky, ironic humor keeps the novel from being overly depressing, however, and presents such a complex, complete package that it is hard to imagine her any other way. Love her or hate her, Theodora is a woman to admire!

I have read a few novels about Theodora but I found The Secret History to present her as a slightly more caring, loving woman than I have come across before, which made her that much more relatable. Yes, she was conniving and would ruin someone if they crossed her path, but she also loved her children and her husband immensely and did her absolute best given the life she was handed. Who could ask for anything more? The book also includes helpful author notes as well as an author interview that fleshes out the facts from the fiction. If you like reading about remarkable women in history and seeing them presented in a well-rounded way, you would be remiss not to pick up The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora.

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 NAL Trade. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.