Review: Far Away Bird by Douglas A. Burton


Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople’s red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. 

Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Theodora goes on to influence sweeping reforms that result in some of the first ever Western laws granting women freedom and protection. More than a millennium before the women’s rights movement, Theodora, alone, took on the world’s greatest superpower and succeeded. Far Away Bird goes where history classrooms fear to tread in hopes that Theodora can finally take her seat among the greatest women in history. 

Theodora seems impossible—yet her transcendence teaches us that society can’t tell us who we are deep down. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes. And her name was Theodora.

My Review

This was the first time I ever read a book on Kindle while at the same time listening to it on Audible. It actually added a new dimension; absorbing the book through my ears as well as my eyes enhanced the experience. Although it takes longer to get from beginning to end because I had to allow for pauses and articulation of the words, it was richer and more satisfying to my brain. And this was a very long book. We are thrust deep into the trials of this girl whose world is turned upside down after the death of her father. Life in Constantinople is unkind to widows and orphans, and Theodora learns the hard way how to survive in a world that chews up women and throws them into the gutter. She has a long and treacherous journey to discover her inner strengths, and even then she doesn’t quite get it right. Prostitution seems to be the only answer, though this leads her to a higher calling—a spy for the Blues, the political faction that has saved her from destitution. And who among the Blues is responsible for her promotion (if you could call it that)? Justinian, of course:

Theodora blinked. This was the man who had taken on a legion of Greens with his voice and words, and now as they stood in the dimly lit fornice, he set his voice and words against Theodora. Whatever flutters of girlishness that lingered in her stomach now faded. She managed a nod. “I understand.”
“Because some girls collapse under the pressures of the post,” he said. “A relentless fear of getting caught can break a person. I don’t want to put you through that hell. I need a certain kind of woman.”
She saw that he looked at her as if searching for something in her eyes, some quality. “I think I can be that kind of woman, Magister Justinian,” said Theodora. “What exactly are you asking of me?”
“To deliberately betray powerful men who trust you. These men will have high imperial stations, and they’ll tell you things in confidence that you’ll turn around and tell me. If these men discover who you are or what you’re doing, you could be killed. I want you to let that settle in because I can’t afford any confusion. This is a deadly profession that won’t allow second thoughts once you’ve committed.”

Not a terribly auspicious start, is it? Of course, we all know that she eventually becomes empress, so their mutual attraction must win out. But she is a nobody and he is a high ranking aristocrat, so it seems impossible that they could come to any kind of partnership. When things get too risky between them, she takes another post in another country and tries to forget him. But no, that is not her destiny. What she does discover about herself is an implacable need to defend the weak and defenseless—to fight for the rights of women and stand up to their persecutors. She gets help along the way, and her indomitable spirit carries her through every travail. This book is uncomfortable at times, and the reader must squirm through some mighty disagreeable incidents before she comes out on top. I was waiting for her to become empress, but by about 70% of the way through, I realized this wasn’t going to happen. Frankly, although this was a very good and intense read, I was disappointed that we didn’t get that far. Her conflicts and challenges are the significance of this book, not her future greatness.

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