In her twelfth book Stella Duffy sets herself several challenges. The first is stepping into a slightly new genre for her with a historical novel. The second is the book is about a real if rather mysterious woman ‘Theodora’, which leads to the third challenge; we know what happens to the character. The word ‘Empress’ is on the cover of the book too after all. It’s the latter that I think is the most challenging. If the reader knows from the start where a book is going then why would they read on? All three together is quite a risk for any author to take, some risks fail and others really pay off.
I think the most important thing in any book where the main character is also the title of the novel is that the author makes that character reader friendly, why are you going to get through 300+ pages if you don’t like the star of the book. Theodora definitely is the star of ‘Theodora’ (that sounds a bit weird, you get what I mean). From the death of her father at five killed by his own favourite bear of his trade, which we see through flashbacks of a kind, and the fact as the plainer and less talented in dancing and singing sister of three Theodora has a slight underdog status from the opening of the book and you feel for her, you side with her, you like her.
However do not let first impressions fool you as Theodora is determined, I want to say gutsy but it’s a bit of a cliché, and what she lacks in some talents she makes up with more, her mind and her body tend to win people over though not necessarily in that order. We follow her journey from the dark underbelly of Constantinople and its prostitution, through the theatre and onwards (I don’t want to give too much away) as she breaks the mould to become the woman no one would believe she could. There is a twist in the middle as she follows her heart rather than her head and exposes another side to her we have not seen before, you like her more.
The book isn’t just about Theodora though and there are a few characters that deserve there own mention too because characters are something that Stella Duffy does exceptionally well. There is the tough loving teacher and eunuch Menander, the butter wouldn’t melt (though watch out) Chrysomallo, the dashing Hecebolus and the delightfully wicked Euphemia. For me though a fowl mouthed dwarf and ‘Madame’, Sophia, who becomes Theodora’s pimp and best friend was possibly my favourite character and almost stole the show from Theodora herself.
What about the historical aspect? Well, it may surprise you to find out but I wasn’t born during the Byzantine period in history, so I have no real inkling how spot on the novel is. My mother is a classist though, and has been reading the book in advance, and says it brings it fully to life and I would agree with her. I did have a little wobble with the first chapter as Duffy explains a lot of the history and sets the seen. Not in a text book way but I did feel I was getting a lot and very instantly. However that’s a small niggle and Duffy doesn’t do the unforgivable, as some authors do, and show off how well they researched everything or how what an authority they are on the period each chapter. The research is there but Duffy keeps it subtley in the text, no historical sledge hammers, just the initial foundation.
Constantinople comes to life on the page, you can smell the backstreets, hear the voices and the stage shows almost play out before your eyes they have a genuine atmosphere. In fact I would have liked a bit more of that phase in Theodora’s life as I wanted to go off and explore it further. As the book progresses the heat of the holy desert of Alexandria sears through the pages and you do really feel you are with our heroine in the various settings of her journey.
I really enjoyed ‘Theodora’ it is historical and yet mythical (which is apt) all in one.It also almost has an element of adventure about it and you feel its a tale the people of its setting would really rather have enjoyed it if Duffy had been able to read it to them at the Hippodrome herself. I am glad to know there is hopefully a sequel in the pipeline as I would happily spend much more time with her. Especially if I get to meet Sophia again along the way, though maybe she should get her own book too? 9/10
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (I am not comparing the two because you can’t in terms of historical period, length etc. This is another wonderfully written historical gem and a favourite read of last year for me)
Singling Out The Couples – Stella Duffy (a mythical and magical fairytale of an evil princess who comes to London in search of a heart)