REVIEW: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin
Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world.
Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress.
How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?
From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.
Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.
Dear Mr. Martin,
The lush cover combined with the fact that I know only a little about Empress Theodora lead me to request a copy of the arc. Now I know a lot more about her – or a lot more of what little we know with the knowledge that this information might be tainted by politics and personal animosity. Readers looking for a strong historical woman who rose above what she might ever have dreamed need look no further than her though this might not be the most engaging retelling of her life.
Given the fact that she lived 1600 years ago and she wasn’t born to wealth or status, it’s amazing that we know much of anything about her. Because of this I’m sure that some creative efforts had to go into filling in the blanks around the facts that exist. The historical research here reads as impressively done with lots of descriptions of Constantinople, the Pentapolis cities, sea voyages, Alexandria, and Antioch.
Using alternate points of view – third person for Theodora and first person for the eunuch Stephen – allows information to be presented that with only one or the other alone might have seemed unrealistic. I found the sections of Stephen’s story felt more engaging and natural while those about Theodora felt at times more stilted and artificial. There were also way too many sentences that began, “Oh.” That could be turned into a drinking game.
Oh, it is not the suite of prior years, but I don’t care,
Oh, how her heart ached for her.
Oh, I do admit to possessing hubris in those heady times
Oh, she wanted to make her mother proud,
Oh, she was no innocent.
Oh, I consider running away.
While there are plenty of things about Theodora’s past which testify to her determination and strength of character, there are also sections that were a bit dull such descriptions of her artistic tableaux. The part in which Theodora is learning a type of dance – which has no importance to her life once the instruction is over – dragged while the religious discussions she has in Alexandria which do impact her life as Empress are given half the time. I also wished more was told about Stephen’s past since curses, wizards, and reading auras while traveling across the Levant and Egypt sounded fascinating.
Things seem to be picking up towards the end of the book but it’s then that I learned this is to be a duology and most all of Theodora’s life as Empress, including all the religious and feminist things she’s known for, aren’t here. I enjoyed going back to the old style of historical fiction books I used to devour but I’m not sure I want to read another long book to get the second half of her story. C+