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Book Cover Image: The Purple Shroud by Stella DuffyTitle: The Purple Shroud: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Author: Stella Duffy
ISBN: 9780143122258
No. of Pages: 416
Genre: Historical Fiction
Synopsis:

”Theodora and Justinian have been crowned Emperor and Empress, but ruling an empire is no easy task. The two factions of Christianity are still battling for dogmatic supremacy, the Empire’s borders are not secure, and Theodora worries about the ambitions of Justinian’s two best generals. But the most pressing concern is close to home: Constantinople’s two factions, the Blues and the Greens, are beginning to unite in their unhappiness with rising taxes. When that unhappiness spills over into all-out violence, thousands are killed (including someone very close to Theodora) and many of the City’s landmarks are destroyed, including Theodora’s beloved Hagia Sophia. In the aftermath of the riots, Theodora guides Justinian in gaining back the love and trust of the people, her unerring instinct for what the people want proving invaluable. Justinian promises to rebuild the Hagia Sophia to be even more spectacular than before. Theodora comes to realize that being the Augusta is simply another role she must play, though the stakes are much higher and there is no offstage. It’s a role she was born to play.”

Thoughts: Stella Duffy’s initial introduction to Theodora of Constantinople highlights her life prior to her rise to the most powerful woman in the land. In The Purple Shroud  readers are taken on the next stage of her journey, showcasing the adaptations this remarkable woman had to make in order to be the empress her beloved city needed her to be. Theodora’s growth from the selfish actress trying to improve her lot in life to an empress who puts the needs of her people ahead of her own is as amazing as it is fascinating to explore, and Ms. Duffy puts to good use as many historical documents to allow readers to do just that.

Gone are the more salacious elements of the first novel, as Theodora’s machinations no longer involve working on her back as the means to her desired ends. Their absence allows the story to focus on her intelligence, determination, and overall passion for her beliefs. When scenes do take place within the intimate confines of her bedroom, they are all the more poignant for occurring for love and not for political maneuverings or necessity. As many other historic royal couples can attest, royal marriage and love are not necessarily synonymous, making Theodora’s and Justinian’s symbiotic relationship moving and special. Theirs was a true partnership based on mutual respect and an emotional connection that very few upper-class marriages had, and Theodora was one of the few empresses in ancient history who truly ruled jointly with her husband. Ms. Duffy does an outstanding job capturing the rarity of this as well as its importance to their rule.

The one drawback to The Purple Shroud is the religious element. It’s not a bad thing but is a very complicated thing. Justinian’s rule was defined by the early Christian theological battle between two distinct beliefs regarding the divinity of Jesus. Much of the book dwells on these verbal skirmishes, which become confusing if one does not have a clear understanding of the theological differences. Making the situation even worse is the fact that even though Justinian and Theodora held opposing viewpoints on this crucial issue, they presented a united front to the people. This means that even while Theodora is scheming to try to bring her “people” to positions of power, she has to support her husband’s choices as well. In other words, keeping track of which character is on which side of the debate becomes somewhat impossible. Unfortunately, it was one of the fundamental issues at stake during Justinian’s reign, so ignoring the details leaves huge gaps in the narrative.

Similarly, as with life at any royal court, politicking is a prominent feature of The Purple Shroud  Much like the issue regarding Theodora’s theological struggles, this is one area that requires foreknowledge, or at least a modicum of Internet research, to be able to understand the details and the stakes involved. For fans of historical fiction, these scenes are a fantastic opportunity to learn more about this fairly obscure period in time. For the average reader though, the political and religious machinations can become tedious. This is not through any fault of Ms. Duffy’s though. In fact, Ms. Duffy does all in her power to explain as much as she can without creating pages-long details. While unfamiliarity with the time period and issues of the era does not in any way harm one’s ability to enjoy the novel, to have even the smallest amounts of knowledge do much to enhance Ms. Duffy’s creation.

Living in a time where woman had virtually no rights, in an era that was defined by religious and political upheaval, Theodora’s ideas are about as modern as they could get. Documented through her husband’s policy changes, Theodora was able to usher in an era of women’s rights that allowed the women of Constantinople more freedoms and privileges than those from any other era. From the creation of a sanctuary/nunnery for penitent prostitutes to laws allowing women to hold property, maintain custody, and others providing absolution to those forced into servitude through necessity, much of her reign focuses on helping those who need it most. What she was able to accomplish, either directly or through her relationship with her husband, is simply noteworthy. Ms. Duffy does an excellent job steering the reader through the more mundane but necessary elements of life to focus on the pre-feminist ideas held and changes she wrought.

For those who have ever complained about lack of character development in novels, The Purple Shroud is a must-read because no one evolves as much as Theodora of Constantinople. Her natural ambition and drive, coupled with her background in acting, allowed her to adapt to the necessary changes that becoming Augusta meant. However, as The Purple Shroud shows, she did not accomplish those changes in a day nor without more than a few tears shed. By the end of the novel, the cruel and selfish young woman she was in the first book is gone, and in her place is a formidable, cunning, and yet compassionate woman still driven to succeed but driven to help others and much softer around the edges. Her statement that royalty makes a good (death) shroud is excellent foreshadowing of the lengths she would go to protect her people and an example of the redirection of her ambitions.

The Purple Shroud is a welcome addition to Ms. Duffy’s repertoire as it allows readers to get to know Theodora the ruler as well as they got to know Theodora the courtesan. Her descriptions are vivid and exacting and do much to allow the reader to visual a complete picture of Theodora, her surroundings, and her life. Ms. Duffy manages to weave together the complex politics and theology of the era into an enjoyable fictional history of one of the most extraordinary female leaders ever.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to NetGalley and to Penguin Group for my review copy!

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