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Library JournalIn this historical fiction debut set in 520 CE, Thornton offers both a fascinating interpretation of a powerful woman’s life and an enlightening portrayal of the great city known at various times as Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. Basing her tale in sound historical research, Thornton vividly re-creates the streets of Constantinople after Emperor Constantine established the city as the home of the Christian empire. The story follows the life of Theodora, a young beauty with a bright wit, charm, and a tendency to speak her mind who rises from destitution to become, first, a prostitute, then a celebrated actress, and, finally, the Roman empress. Theodora confronts sexual predators, scheming politicians, and dangerous family secrets and overcomes daunting circumstances, among them giving birth in a slime-filled alley at the age of 15. Her religious belief and emotional strength see her through the trying times in her marriage to Justinian and their rule of the Byzantine Empire. While the novel does not shy away from pain, it is most importantly a story of the strength of women. Theodora crosses paths with numerous strong women; they help her when she is destitute and challenge her at the height of her power.
Verdict While Empress Theodora’s story unfolds in what is today modern Turkey, one could borrow from the cowboy vernacular and say that Thornton’s well-conceived and engrossing tale exalts a historical figure of “true grit.” Fans of Stella Duffy’s The Purple Shroud and Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore may want to check out Thornton’s take.—Edith Lawraine Smith, San Francisco
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