Review: Fortune’s Child, A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin


Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the Roman world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

My Review

Here’s something different! We have the story of Empress Theodora from her childhood to her coronation. The twist is that she is telling this story to the very person she had imprisoned for five years—for no apparent reason—and just as suddenly released so he can record the history of her life. Why? To set the record straight, because she feared that her powerful enemy in court, Procopius, would blacken her name after her death. It turns out that the man she imprisoned—our narrator—was her friend during the days she was a lonely and rejected courtesan—and worse, an ex-actress. He loved her from the day he met her, and was indirectly responsible for her meeting Justinian, who was heir to the throne at the time.

But sadly, our narrator Stephen, whose parents sold him into slavery, was a eunuch. So his infatuation would never be more than that. Nonetheless, he was entangled in her rise to power:

“What about that miserable alley east of the Hippodrome?” (says Procopius)
My heart catches. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t play coy, whoremonger,” he growls.
“What?” I feel the blood coming into my face.
“You took him there—to the shack of that reformed actress. Of course, she’s not reformed at all, is she?”
“Theodora. You led him right to her, didn’t you? You procured her, yes? Did he pay you well?—Or perhaps she did, eh? Is she still paying?”

Theodora’s story is interspersed with the memoirs of our narrator, chapter by chapter. Because they both came from poverty, it would have been easy to mix them up; but the author saved me from this confusion by writing Stephen’s tale in first person, and Theodora’s memoir in third person. Although I knew she must have been despicable because she threw her friend into prison, I found her story sympathetic despite myself. Three quarters of the way through the book, it dawned on me that there was too much story remaining for just one volume, and so it turned out. There’s more to come; we’ll just have to wait.

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