NetGalley Top Reviewer

NetGalley Top Reviewer
NetGalley Top Reviewer

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton

4.0 out of 5 stars - This historical fiction novel recounts the rise of a young, homeless street urchin to the throne as Empress Theodora circa 500 AD.

Theodora and her 2 sisters, along with their mother, are put out on the mean streets of Constantinople when their father and husband dies suddenly. Too young and too unskilled to find any work, the two older sisters leave their drunken mother and find the only money they can earn is on the boards at a local theater where the women perform for men of all rank and power both on and off the stage. Faced with many trials, betrayals and disappointments, Theodora does whatever she needs to do to survive -- forming alliances here and there --  using her resilience and determination to drag herself out of situations that almost break her spirit. Basically considered a whore, though a very popular one, Theodora attracts the one man who just possibly might be the one to save her. Faced with treachery and secrecy. often unable to trust those closest to her, Theodora earns the respect and adoration of her Emperor and has the opportunity to take the ultimate step -- to accept the crown.

Told in the first person, the story of Theodora's triumphs and the agony of her defeats, is filled with the sights and sounds of Byzantine life in what was basically the most important city in the Empire at that time. The colors, the jewels, the fabrics, and the food were described in great detail. The reader could see the famous palaces and architecture vs the small moldy rooms and tavernas, and feel the contrast between the plebeian and the patrician society. I love the kind of book that can make a reader feel present in the time and setting.

Other reviewers have remarked that everything in the book is not completely accurate and -- it was not meant to be -- thus is not a biography, but historical fiction with some liberty taken by the author (as she explains in an afterward). I enjoyed it very much and would recommend it to anyone interested in this era with all its political and religious intrigue, its passion, and its extreme privilege that unimaginable wealth provides. Rich with description and with characters to love and hate, it's a great read that I couldn't put down until I finished it.

Library book - paperback format.

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