#BookReview — Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin
A Novel of Empress Theodora
By James Conroyd Martin
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.
“But to take revenge on a dying woman—an empress forged in steel, nonetheless—would demand cold determination and a cunning mind. I vow to meet the challenge.”
For five long years, Stephen has suffered the indignity and inhumanity of a cold, damp prison cell. When they come for him, he fears the worst. But instead of death, he is given an audience with the woman who had sealed his fate all those years ago.
How can Empress Theodora ask this of him? After everything, she has done. And yet, Stephen is the only person she can trust to write her official biography. How Stephen would like to throw Theodora’s offer in her face, but he has already lost five years of his life, he does not want to lose anymore.
But as Theodora begins to recite the story that she wants him to tell, Stephen cannot help but remember his own dark and sordid journey from a young Syrian boy to a palace eunuch.
From the abject terror of a key turning in a dungeon door to the remembered past of a life once lived, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin, is the compelling account of the rise to power of Theodora and the man who loved her from afar.
With crystalline prose, Martin has written a book that horrifies, fascinates, and moves in almost equal measures. The life of Empress Theodora is one of debauchery and passionate interludes. It is also the story of a woman who escaped the poverty of her birth and rose in station so high it surpassed all expectation. Theodora is an actress, a whore, a mother, a mistress, a wife, and finally an empress. Martin has brought Theodora vividly back to life in the pages of this remarkable book.
With a keen eye on the historical controversy, Martin has presented his readers with a book that is backed by confident research, and his almost lyrical narrative made Fortune’s Child next to impossible to put down. The hours of research that Martin has dedicated to the life of Theodora has to be commended. Martin presents his readers with a woman who is intelligent, sensual, and determined. Theodora's story is quite extraordinary and, as is suggested in this book, her character has been cruelly assassinated by those who loathed her power and position. Martin has decided to base his Theodora not on the seemingly bitter, or perhaps self-seeking exaggerations of Procopius of Caesarea, but on his own understanding of her character. However, Martin does not give his readers a Theodora without the controversy, but he does allow his readers to glimpse or more balanced view of her. I thought his depiction was particularly well-drawn, and more importantly, believable. Fortune’s Child is indeed a dazzling portrait and a gripping account of Theodora’s life and that of the Byzantine Empire during this time.
Fortune’s Child is the story of Theodora’s rise to power, but it is also the gripping, yet haunting tale of the former Secretary to the Empress — Stephen. Stephen’s story is unforgettably tragic. His hopes, his dreams, his desires are stolen from him as surely as his freedom was. Stephen suffers terribly in this book, and at times, the things he is made to endure left me in tears. His story is one of survival, and what a story it is. Stephen is betrayed at first because of his family's poverty, and then by Theodora, whom he adored and trusted. His story is genuinely heart-rendering, and I think it is one that will haunt me for a long time.
Martin writes with a great deal of authority, but he also has a keen eye on human fragility and frailty. His characters are flawed, but not ridiculously so. They come across as very authentic and real in the telling. Martin also writes with a great deal of imagination and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, which not only made this book incredibly gripping but also vastly entertaining. Martin has a novelist intuition for what makes a book immensely readable as well as creating characters that a reader can really get behind. When historical fiction is written in such a way, there is no such thing as too much.
Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is a book that is compelling, engaging, and utterly engrossing. It is a book where history comes alive. This is a book worthy of your time and deserving of a place on your bookcase.
If you are looking for your next great Historical Fiction read, then look no further than Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin. I, for one, cannot wait to read the next book in what promises to be the next great series.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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James Conroyd Martin
The seed for "Fortune's Child" started some years ago when I was taking an Art Appreciation course at a community college in Los Angeles. One day we were studying the exquisite mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora from the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and the professor pointed to Theodora and said, “I’m not a writer, but if I were, that is the woman I would write about.”
Little did he know what he had unloosed. What a fascinating woman, frailties and all! She could have been the prototype for Eva Peron. I started the novel right then and there; however, life and other books got in the way. But Fortune's Child has finally found her way. Fate goes ever as it must. I am also the author of THE POLAND TRILOGY, beginning with "Push Not the River," a novel based on the diary of Anna Berezowska, a Polish countess who lived through the rise and fall of the Third of May Constitution. After working on the project for some years without raising interest within the publishing community, I self-published in 2001. Just one year later, St. Martin’s Press purchased the book and released a hard cover edition in September 2003. Polish and German rights sold almost immediately. The Polish edition, "Nie ponaglaj rzeki," was released in May of 2005, became a bestseller and sold out in a matter of months. Anna's story had come full circle: Polish to English to Polish! "Pod purpurowym niebem," the translation of "Against a Crimson Sky," also became a bestseller when published in December of 2007. "The Warsaw Conspiracy" followed, as did "The Boy Who Wanted Wings." Martin, who holds degrees from St. Ambrose and DePaul Universities, is a retired English and Creative Writing teacher now living and writing in Portland, Oregon.