Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley/Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: June 26, 2013

Where Theodora went, trouble followed… In sixth century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds, and rose from being a common theater tart to become empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know. But the woman whose image was later immortalized in glittering mosaic was, in fact, a scrappy, clever, conniving, flesh-and-blood woman full of sensuality and spirit whose real story is as surprising as any ever told… When her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation on the streets. Determined to survive, Theodora makes a living any way she can—first on her back with every man who will have her, then on the stage of the city’s infamous amphitheater in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention. When her daring performance grants her a back-door entry into the halls of power, she seizes the chance to win a wealthy protector—only to face heartbreak and betrayal. Ever resilient, Theodora rises above such trials and by a twist of fate, meets her most passionate admirer yet: the Emperor’s nephew. She will thrive as his confidant and courtesan, but many challenges lie ahead. For one day, this man will hand her a crown. And all the empire will wonder—is she bold enough, shrewd enough, and strong enough to keep it?

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Arguably one of the most powerful women in history of the Byzantine Empire, Theodora was the wife of Emperor Justinian I. Noted as savior of her husband's throne, she used her prominent position and political acumen to her advantage during his reign, promoting a personal agenda of social and religious reform. Immortalized in the ancient mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale, her regal likeness does credit to her legacy, but offers little insight to the woman beneath the golden halo of jewels and richly adorned robes of state. Where did regal lady come from? Who might she have been? What are the details of her story? These questions have taunted historians and chroniclers for centuries, but today serve an additional purpose, as they are the basis and inspiration behind Stephanie Thornton's The Secret History.

Beneath Thornton's pen, the Byzantine Empire comes alive - the dark depravity of life on her streets as well as the glittering splendor and pageantry enjoyed by her privileged elite. An ardent admirer of the history of this piece, I desperately needed this story to feel authentic. Theodora's is a tale of drive and ambition, a complex story that couldn't unfold against pale shades of brown and beige. Thornton understood this from the very beginning, embracing the ugly realities of life in the ancient world, vividly illustrating its shadowy underbelly with as much enthusiasm as she does its wine soaked palaces and silk draped villas.

Thornton's characterization of Theodora is also very unique. Having a certain appreciation for her historic counterpart, I was surprised by how easy it was to embrace this fictional interpretation. Here again, I needed it to work - Thornton's Theodora had to be someone I could both empathize and admire, someone who balanced vulnerability and strength, someone who fit the historic outline but at the same time defied all expectation. Yes, it was a high order, and yes, it was probably unfair to impose such demands on a debut author, but I make no apologies and in truth, Thornton wouldn't need them if I did. The Theodora that appears in The Secret History exhibits these qualities with such affect that one forgets she is crafted from ink on a page, she is believable from the first, a striking heroine that embodies every quality one would expect her real life counterpart to have possessed.

I realize readers aren't exactly used to my gushing over novels, but it does happen and this is what it looks like. The Secret History is a brilliantly absorbing and entertaining novel, the type of book that finds you sitting in bed at two in the morning hanging on the author's every word... I hesitate to compare Thornton to my favorite authors - I have a standard policy of reading at least two, if not three, of an author's books before adding any name to that prestigious list, but I can definitely say, without reservation, that I look forward to reading Thornton's work in future and hold great hopes for her sophomore release.

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"A rich patron was the only way to pluck myself from the gutters, but only if I could convince him to marry me..."
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Check out all the stops on Stephanie Thorton's The Secret History Virtual Book Tour

Tuesday, June 25
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Review at Enchanted by Josephine
Wednesday, June 26
Review & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, June 27
Review & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court
Monday, July 1
Review at Let Them Read Books
Tuesday, July 2
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Interview & Giveaway at Enchanted by Josephine
Wednesday, July 3
Review at Book Journey
Friday, July 5
Review at Layered Pages
Monday, July 8
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Tuesday, July 9
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Friday, July 12
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Monday, July 15
Review at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books
Tuesday, July 16
Review at Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, July 17
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Thursday, July 18
Review & Guest Post at The Lit Bitch
Friday, July 19
Interview & Giveaway at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books
Monday, July 22
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, July 24
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Friday, July 26
Interview at A Bookish Libraria
Monday, July 29
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Friday, August 2
Review & Giveaway at Bippity Boppity Book


Daphne said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed it! I'll be reading it shortly. Have you read Stella Duffy's books on Theodora (Theodora and The Purple Shroud) and if so, how did they compare?

Anonymous said...

Oh I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Unfortunately I haven't read Duffy yet so I couldn't say. I own The Purple Shroud, but have had difficulty getting a copy of Theodora.