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Book Cover Image: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella DuffyTitle: Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

Author: Stella Duffy

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“Roman historian Procopius publicly praised Theodora of Constantinople for her piety-while secretly detailing her salacious stage act and maligning her as ruthless and power hungry. So who was this woman who rose from humble beginnings as a dancer to become the empress of Rome and a saint in the Orthodox Church? Award-winning novelist Stella Duffy vividly recreates the life and times of a woman who left her mark on one of the ancient world’s most powerful empires. Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is a sexy, captivating novel that resurrects an extraordinary, little-known figure from the dusty pages of history.”

Thoughts: When considering famous women in ancient history, Cleopatra and Nefertiti are just two women that immediately come to mind. Theodora of Constantinople is not. Yet, given her background and upbringing, it is one of the more extreme and shocking rags-to-riches story of its time, if not of history. Stella Duffy’s fictionalized story of Theodora’s rise to power aims to correct this oversight, as it highlights the fascinating and turbulent adolescence and background that helped her ultimately achieve the highest rank a woman could achieve.

Told with refreshing frankness, Ms. Duffy does not hide the fact nor minimize Theodora’s standing as a prostitute. The fact that actresses were automatically considered entertainers both in front of the stage and behind closed doors is as shocking as it is fascinating. More importantly, she emphasizes the psychological impact such professions have on the women forced to work for a living. Out of all the possibilities for professions as a means for survival, being an actress or singer was among the best choices. Yet, being forced into certain servitude at such a young age was devastating to a girl’s psyche, and Ms. Duffy shows this superbly.

Theodora was an amazing woman, and Ms. Duffy’s admiration for her strength and her spirit shine through each page. While there is no doubt that her rise to power is a testament to her fortitude and strength of character, there is the feel of hero worship in the novel that does diminish some of her feats. Theodora was not a nice woman. She uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants and is as manipulative and dramatic as such behavior typically allows. It is an emotionally turbulent experience reading about some of Theodora’s actions.

While her pre-empress life is quite interesting and unique, her growth into her role as empress and eventual saint are sadly left unspoken. The book ends just as this next phase of her life is set to begin, and the reader is left in the dark about how a woman who is worshipped for her bawdiness and bedroom performances ends up being beloved and worshipped for her good deeds. Theodora’s transformation from sinner to saint is a remarkable one, and Ms. Duffy missed a huge opportunity in not including this in the novel.

Given Theodora’s first profession, the language and subject matter of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is not for the prudish or faint of heart. Ms. Duffy allows Theodora to be as crass and frank as one would imagine someone living such a life would actually be. The story reads quickly, as the reader only gets a very superficial knowledge of Theodora and her inner workings. Not the best work of historical fiction out there, still, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore excels at introducing readers to a relatively unknown and yet powerful female ruler as well as spotlighting the unfortunate situations women of her age were forced to experience at such young ages. It is as much a novel about a famous woman as it is a novel about the plight of all women. For that reason, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore is worth the read.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to NetGalley and Elaine Broeder from Penguin Group for my e-galley!

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