REVIEW: Imperial Purple by Gillian Bradshaw
Set in early Christian times, the tale of the weaver Demetrias portrays her entrapment in a treasonous plot against the Byzantine emperor and her fight to protect her family and self as the battle for Constantinople rages.
TR – In the past, the heroine was raped (not described). The heroine defends herself against rape in the book. Both the heroine and her husband are subjected to physical assault and the hero to torture (not described on page) A child is threatened with violence.
Dear Ms. Bradshaw,
After a brief detour with you through the early part of the English Civil War, it’s back to ancient Constantinople by way of Tyre. Yes, the source of Tyrian Purple the wearing of which is reserved for those high in society. When a state slave is ordered to weave a magnificent purple cloak that will be far too long for the Emperor, she immediately knows that something is wrong. Demetrias also knows that if there is a conspiracy to overthrow Theodosius and she gets caught up in it due to her work, dying will look like heaven by the time the torturers are finished trying to get information out of her.
Partly (or entirely? I never was sure) due to the fact that Demetrias was raped by a government official when she was sixteen, she’s never more than endured physical relations with her husband Symeon who is also a state owned slave. Of course I hate that this happened to her but I did feel it to be realistic that even years after, she is still wary of sex. While she is a silk weaver of repute, he fishes for the snails from which the purple dye is made. They have a comfortable life, a small son, and now this threat hanging over their heads.
Demetrias delicately verbally probes the procurator about the legitimacy of the order to weave this cloak which she immediately realizes is not intended for Theodosius. What she intuits is that there is no one in the weaving factory to whom she can report this – all those in charge are part of the conspiracy. She also quickly realizes for whom the cloak is intended, something the not-too-bright procurator unintentionally confirms. With the help of her supervisor, Demetrias does all she can to hide what she’s being forced to do from the factory workers and both of them cleverly use the stink of the dyeworks to protect Demetrias from the sexual predations of this procurator.
Questioned by her husband who can see something is bothering her, Demetrias tells all to him. In turn, he seeks someone who might be able to protect them in exchange for information. Just when they both think that the danger might be over, things get worse. Much worse. Will they survive being embroiled in the machinations of those in power? And if they come out of this alive, can they ever, literally or figuratively, go home again?
There is obviously a lot of research that went into this book but as mentioned in the afterward, there is much that (at least at present and until we find some long lost sources of information) we don’t know about this century in history. I like that one way around this lack of knowledge is the fact that things that don’t need to be, aren’t described. Other details such as how Demetrias feels as she’s taken away from everything she has ever known or how the inhabitants of a remote village would view anyone from a large city who has come into their small world can easily be told which gives a great “feel” for these scenes.
As state owned slaves, Demetrias and Symeon initially feel that they are in better shape than even some freeborn citizens of Tyre: they will always get food rations, they are valued for their skills and allowed to do some side trading, they have their own apartment, and Symeon owns his ship. It comes as a shock when they learn otherwise. When she was sixteen, Demetrias had submitted to a procurator’s demands for sex (which seemed to have been an inherent danger for these women). During her journey to Constantinople, she’s a woman alone among a group of men, none of whom see her as anything except a slave. I enjoyed watching her face down danger as well as discovering her inner strength. She even develops a cautiously friendly relationship with the man she had thought the most frightening of the lot.
Symeon, on the other hand, is devoted to his family and a fine sailor but perhaps not the best at intrigue. I give him full marks for trying to protect those he loves and realize that later on in the book, he was constrained in his actions in a way that lead to disaster but to me, Demetrias will always be the brains of the family and the one to be reckoned with. I felt sorry for the situation in which Symeon’s desire to save his wife landed him in but despite the good things another character tells Symeon he thinks of him, I never saw those qualities. Then he whines for days about his future. Yeah, Symeon wasn’t my favorite character. I did feel that son Meli acted as a six year old probably would and definitely wasn’t a plot moppet.
Though the intrigues of the powerful are what begins and propels the plot, it’s wonderful that most of it is actually focuses on the little people. We see the silk weavers and purple fishers of Tyre, the weavers in Constantinople, and a Hun. They’re all just trying to get through a day or rebuild a life after it’s been wrecked. None of them want anything to do with plots or treachery. Those who are up to their necks in treason or trying to stave it off, don’t come off all that well though Pulcheria, the sister of the Emperor and an Augusta in her own right, is fascinating to watch at work.
One of the sad things about the story is how Demetrias, Symeon, and Meli all eventually realize that life as they knew it will never be the same. In the end, the parents are offered new lives to use their skills but their quiet family life will never be as it was and they “can’t go home again.” They also realize that there’s no true safety and they’ll always live with the memory of the danger they faced. B
Unfortunately, currently there is no digital edition nor in print paper one.
I’m usually a big Gillian Bradshaw fan, but I didn’t enjoy this particular book as much as many of her others. However, her writing/research was sharp, so still worth the read.
@AMG: The time period and focus on the everyday people was fascinating but I’ll have to see how often I feel like pulling this one out for a reread. Demetrias’s husband was just so … not great to read about.
Lovely review, Jayne.
Over the years I have read almost everything Bradshaw has written. This one, alas, was not among my favorites; I think I read it just the once, when it first came out. I much preferred ‘The Beacon at Alexandria’.
@Barb in Maryland:
Yes to the Beacon at Alexandria!
I forgot to add that currently this is at the Internet Archive and can be borrowed for 1 hour intervals, “Renewable every hour, pending availability.” I haven’t tried to do that one hour renewal thing yet but it would give readers a taste of it to see if they want to look at buying it used.
Funnily enough I just read this book last week! I love Gillian Bradshaw’s books, especially her ones set in the ancient world. The Sand-Reckoner and Render Unto to Caesar are my favourites. I found this one fascinating but occasionally the politics overwhelmed me.
@Kate Hewitt: Devious, intricate, and surreptitious politics aren’t labeled “byzantine” for nothing. ☺
And here’s an interesting article about archeologists discovering 3000 year old fragments of cloth dyed purple.