REVIEW: The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw
In the Fourth Century A.D., independent and determined young Charis is forbidden to become a doctor because she is a woman. Disguising herself as a eunuch, she flees Ephesus and an unwanted marriage for Alexandria, then the center of learning. There she apprentices to a Jewish doctor but eventually becomes drawn into Church politics and is forced once again to flee. She serves as an army doctor at a Roman outpost in Thrace until, kidnapped by barbarian Visigoths, she finds her destiny: to heal and also to be a woman and wife.
Dear Ms. Bradshaw,
There’s a reason “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Charis certainly does. There is religious strife, barbarians agitating at the gates of the Empire, family issues and that’s before we get to Charis’s burning desire to practice medicine. In an age of quacks (if you’re lucky) and butchers (if you’re not) she is a person driven to help and heal her fellow human beings – and an occasional bird and rabbit. She’s also trained as well as was possible then with an education thoroughly grounded not only in theory but in practical application as well. I’d sign with her to be my primary care provider.
Several themes run through the story. Church v State, integration of a multicultural society, the state of education and medicine and – of course, the main one – the role of women and how to achieve your goals when the men in your life want you to be an accessory and ornament. Most of the book is spent with Charis as a “chick in pants.” Her stubbornness keeps her going, keeps her striving to achieve and attain what she wants. It also gets her into trouble a time or three but that’s her personality and she doesn’t trim her sails when something she cares about is at risk.
The maps and historical information tidbits help to expand my knowledge of this tumultuous era when everything seemed to be in flux and Might appeared to beat Right straight into the ground. Rome might come in and take over countries, be arrogant, corrupt and greedy at times but Rome also brought peace, trade and prosperity for over 1000 years and united the Empire’s vast population into something to be envied.
The romance is, as I’ve found in the other books of yours I’ve read, very understated. Yet here it’s palpable all the same as Charis discovers to her dismay that her feelings for a certain person have changed over time, little by little, until it hits her that she’s in love – and she’s not even certain at this point she can trust him! Love definitely doesn’t run smoothly, even after an evening of wine and dine when two Romans describe to each other their ideal woman and guess who the description happens to match? But Charis is still bound to remain silent for fear of losing that which she loves above all … practicing the art of medicine.
Yes, I’d love more conventional “romance” in Bradshaw books but the delicious wait, the slow reveal, the ultimate realization that love is shared makes it worth the time spent. I do like that with these characters, they get to know each other first before anything physical. The dawning joy when each finally admits their true feelings is better than any sexy times. I’m also tickled that characters in the book are well rounded and we see them with warts and all. Of course the person Charis is attracted to is another who breaks boundaries and colors outside the lines. He’s actually also a little intimidated by her but has the strength to accept her as she is.
The story ends with them seeming to have worked out a future and way for them to both get and do what they desire in life. It’s actually the hero who brainstorms how Charis can keep practicing her beloved medicine! I haven’t had a dud yet in the recs I’ve gotten and am enjoying these intelligent, more historically period trips back to amazing times and places. B+