Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Fortune's Child by James Conroyd Martin, entertaining fiction about Empress Theodora

In his solidly entertaining sixth novel, the lives of Martin’s two intelligent, resilient protagonists are marked by dramatic shifts in circumstance.

The tale of Theodora, the beautiful dark-haired middle daughter of a bearkeeper, begins in the shadow of Constantinople’s Hippodrome arena, plays out on various stages as an actress, and concludes atop a throne, following her improbable rise to become empress of the eastern Roman Empire as consort to Justinian I. Dying of cancer at 47, she liberates her old friend, a eunuch and former royal scribe named Stephen, from his grisly dungeon prison – where he’s languished for five years for reasons he doesn’t know – and asks him to write her biography.

Unlike Theodora, Stephen has had few opportunities for agency, but as his tale unfolds in parallel to hers, it wields a similar pull. A Syrian boy sold to a Persian magus and trained in multiple languages, he finds his life violently altered as a teenager. Aboard a ship leaving Antioch, he meets Theodora, who becomes his unattainable Circe.

The raw material fueling this novel is consistently fascinating. It offers a mixture of familiar human traits and exotic customs, with mythological “living pictures” all the rage in theatres and holy men, called stylites, living atop marble pillars. Likewise, the settings are vibrantly evoked as Theodora journeys through the vast, diverse lands of what we now call the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, from the fertile landscapes of the Libyan Pentapolis to the pleasure-seeking venues of Antioch and a dark cell in Alexandria, where she encounters the Monophysite heresy for the first time. The theological details are cogently explained.

The energetically paced plot has prevalent themes of ambition and friendship. Unlike many strong-minded historical fiction heroines, Theodora forms bonds of sisterhood with other women, and they help each other navigate a world that doesn’t favor them. Along the way she makes some major mistakes and learns from them. Justinian, her future husband, shows up fairly late on the scene, and his personality remains somewhat enigmatic. This is just the first half of Theodora’s story, however, and history tells us that there’s plenty more to look forward to in book two.

Fortune's Child was published in October by Hussar Quill Press.


  1. The subject was not known to me. I enjoyed your review

  2. A fascinating story set in a time and place so unfamiliar that it could be the backdrop for a science fiction story. The author's ability to make the characters interior thoughts familiar helps to center the story and makes for an absorbing read. Try it, you'll like it.