Lush historical novels that blend great story telling imagination and superb characterization, while also being based on factual discoveries, are complete gems to my library. Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is not only one to house on your personal shelves permanently, but one read that will have you remembering the characters forever.
This novel, based firmly on historical research about an almost forgotten woman of strength and power, Theodora of sixth-century Constantinople, is rich in details with words that fill all the senses and prose that slides smoothly along as hour upon hour tick by. I refused to put down the book for several long bouts. I was completely immersed in the book as if I were actually Theodora herself. Thornton’s well-developed characters were all engaging and endearing, and some loathed, but all superbly structured.
A woman of low-birth who had to act upon the stage in order to be paid for tricks, Theodora was well-read and intelligent (and could even write) unlike most other women at that time who could not afford private tutors. The laws were not easy for those who had no money so that advancement was unlikely and for women without a husband life was extremely hard. The only way to make money was to sell your body. Theodora must do this to survive, but after spending time in a church, she was able to become clean and rise the ranks through her cunning ability to forward-think, problem solve, and give an honest opinion even if it ended up being sometimes humorous. With her wit, she catches the eye and eternal love of Justinian, the nephew of the Emporer. Eventually, Justinian and Theodora are crowned together as Augusti and rule as Emporer and Empress for many years.
This novel is the story of Theodora’s very humble and scary beginnings, her rise to power, and her love story with Justinian. Theodora’s trials are many but her endurance strong. This novel evoked so many emotions in me as I read along the journey. I was horrified, saddened, and overcome with a desire to fix the eternal class struggle, as well as men’s views on women. I cheered, plotted, and felt happy. I was nervous, scared and many times I cried, but especially at the end. The ending of this book racked me with sobs.
I am in love with this book and with Theodora. Reminiscent of great writers like Tracey Higley (from the historical and writing style perspective only – The Secret History had mild sex and violence), Michelle Moran, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Sophie Perinot, Thornton is bound to please with this well-executed tale that contains it all: drama, intrigue, love, loss, power, betrayal, miracles, and overcoming odds. Thornton gives us an exceptional glimpse into Theodora, a story that for some time had been hidden in the history books. Another strong and defining woman will not be forgotten in this amazing fictional biography. I won’t soon forget any of the characters in her novel, as I felt so connected. I was terribly sad to have this story end. I had also fallen in love with the amazing spirit of Theodora.
Thornton did a tremendous job showcasing Theodora as a woman as powerful as someone like Cleopatra, and that she should be added to the list of major women influencers in history. She also did a superb job with the history of the Byzantine Empire, giving us a peek into how it was set to flourish had it not been for the Bubonic Plague almost eradicating the area.
This book is a MUST READ for lovers of historical fiction who like to read about various women in history who wielded great power. Once you get the novel, you won’t be able to put it down as it will usher you into another era and hold you captive in Theodora’s aura.
This one is definitely going on my Top Five historical books list for 2013! Grab this great summer release!
Come back on July 12 for an interview and giveaway with Stephanie Thornton!
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, Synopsis~
ISBN-10: 045141778XWhere 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?
Praise for The Secret History
“Stephanie Thornton’s Theodora is tough and intelligent, spitting defiance against the cruel world of the Byzantine Empire. Her rise from street urchin to emperor’s consort made me want to stand up and cheer. Her later years as empress are great fun to read, but it was her early struggle as actress and courtesan that really had me roaring: either with rage at the misfortunes heaped on this poor girl, or with delight as she once more picked herself up with a steely glint in her eye and kept on going.”—Kate Quinn, author of Empress of the Seven Hills
“Loss, ambition and lust keep this rich story moving at top speed. Stephanie Thornton writes a remarkable first novel that brings a little known woman to full, vibrant life…A sprawling and irresistible story.”—Jeane Westin, author of The Spymaster’s Daughter
“A fascinating and vivid account; in The Secret History, the life of Empress Theodora leaps from the page, as colorful and complex as the woman herself.”—Michelle Diener, author of The Emperor’s Conspiracy
Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel.
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