Review: Dawn Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome by Faith L. Justice

As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up.

After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse. Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?

Dawn Empress tells the little-known and remarkable story of Pulcheria Augusta, 5th century Empress of Eastern Rome. Her accomplishments rival those of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great as she sets the stage for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. Don’t miss this “gripping tale” (Kirkus Reviews); a “deftly written and impressively entertaining historical novel” (Midwest Book Reviews). Historical Novel Reviews calls Dawn Empress an “outstanding novel…highly recommended” and awarded it the coveted Editor’s Choice.

My Review

This book is written during the period after Constantine, while the Roman Empire still had an east and a west. We’re in the east, while the Catholic religion is still having its growing pains, so to speak. Religious persecution is rampant, although the authorities don’t consider it persecution. They are trying to hold the empire together. Our protagonist, the emperor’s older sister Pulcheria, has taken it upon herself to look after her siblings, for she is smart, brave, and precocious. Their father dies young and Theo is still a boy. Brother and sister are very close and he appreciates her guidance—at first. To ensure she is not forced into marriage (and away from her brother), Pulcheria dedicated her virginity to Christ and swore never to marry. This makes her a holy woman—widely revered. She persuaded her two sisters to do the same, although I wonder whether they were old enough to make that decision for themselves. It didn’t matter. Pulcheria’s powerful personality brooked no argument.

At age eighteen she became her brother’s regent, and continued to rule beside him. As she got older, however, she grew harder to deal with; she couldn’t accept that Theo was capable of ruling on his own. When he fell in love and got married, Pulcheria did not like the competition; she was far from civil to her new sister in-law. Something had to give and Theo decided to offer his sister more freedom—and her own palace:

As Theo continued, Pulcheria grew stiffer. He finally stumbled to a halt as he noticed her anger.
Blood suffused her face. She mastered her tongue. “Are you sure this is a gift for me, and not your wife? This is Athenais’ idea, isn’t it? She wishes me out of the palace, thinking, with me gone, she and her brother can control you and the empire.”
“You think so little of my abilities?” Theo dropped his hand, hurt pinching his mouth. “Maybe it’s good that you not only move out of the palace, but also give up your councilor duties. Given some distance, you might see I can govern without you and take pride in that.”
Her heart sank as she realized her error and the pain she caused her brother. “Theo, no…I didn’t…”
He put up a hand to forestall her. “It is done. Please leave with our sisters and your women as soon as you can arrange it.”

The emperor couldn’t break his bonds entirely, and Pulcheria managed to climb back into power again. But there’s trouble on the horizon, for the Roman Empire is weak and threatened from the outside. This book is full of palace intrigue and religious conflict. The pace is unhurried and steady; personalities and theological disputations matter here rather than battles and wars. We are given a glance at a Roman Empire far different from what we are used to, and nobody seems to come out “smelling like a rose”. Overall, our characters try to do their best in a unforgiving world.

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Meet Faith L. Justice

Faith L. Justice writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.

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