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3.9 out of 5 stars42
3.9 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 September 2010
... but like some of the other reviewers here I found this really disappointing and quite a lifeless read. Theodora seems like a character just made for fiction but Duffy doesn't manage to make her live. The greater part of this book is 'told' in page after page of authorial exposition rather than being 'shown' to us in dramatic scenes and dialogue, something which always makes me feel like I'm being held at arm's length from the book and the story it's trying to tell. That combined with an almost palpable self-consciousness that this is 'historical' fiction made the entire project feel artificial and very thin.

Theodora comes to life far more in Robert Graves' old novel Count Belisarius (Penguin Classics) and in the main extant source Procopius' The Secret History (Penguin Classics).

I really wanted to enjoy this book and was looking forward to a modern and female reinterpretation of a figure who might have been mis-represented by hostile chroniclers, but sadly this book managed, for me, to both dilute the wayward, transgressive Theodora of Procopius and yet not substitute anything more lifelike in its stead - very definately a missed opportunity.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 April 2012
This is a fictional biography inspired by the tempestuous life of Byzantine empress Theodora. The story starts with Theodora's training as a child dancer and follows her from her difficult childhood to her success as an actress and her marriage to Justinian. Sadly, the story ends there and the book only covers the 'actress' and 'whore' part of the title, which is a shame as her reign as an empress was one of the most significant and adventurous times of Byzantine history.

Byzantine empress Theodora was one the most influential women in history, a remarkable woman whose fascinating life is the ideal subject for a historical novel. Sadly, this historical novel doesn't do its heroine justice. The novel is not gripping at all, as it is written like a boring documentary, with long tedious narratives, followed by short simplistic dialogues.

The characters are not believable or likable which makes the reader unable to sympathise with them or care about what happens to them. Especially Theodora is underdeveloped, one-dimensional and just plain boring. Duffy's Theodora is a heartless slut, whose only concern is to survive. She is presented as a ruthless whore who treats all her relationships with men as prostitution, including her relationship with Justinian, and only has romantic feelings for her fictional female sexual partners.

The greatest lost opportunity is the lack of atmosphere. Byzantium is the ideal backdrop for a novel as it combined the culture, images, sounds, and smells of both the West and the East. Sadly, the Byzantium of this book is as colourless and boring as everything else in the novel; even the extended descriptions cannot add to the atmosphere as they are soulless as the descriptions of a bad documentary.

I don't normally expect a historical novel to be completely accurate, as I realize that it is fiction and not history. However, there are so many inaccuracies and sloppy research behind this story, that it does not make any sense even to someone familiar with the history. Furthermore, what I found disturbing is the attempt to legitimise this 'fictional' account of Theodora's time with a map and an extended bibliography.

This novel is also published as a paperback; Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore
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on 14 June 2010
I think the most important thing in any book where the main character is also the title of the novel; you have to make 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 wrong, 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. Hwever,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.
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on 28 November 2012
I'm a big fan of Byzantine history and this did not disappoint. A good counterpoint to Procopius.I just hope that she does a similar job on Robert Graves. It is not that I believe Justin was a kindly old duffer or that Justinian wasn't a half-arsed imperialist it is just nice to get a contrary point of view. 'Graves, she has surpassed thee!"
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on 15 June 2012
Brilliant story and a cracking yarn that carries you along effortlessly. Maybe the character was too modern in her thinking and attitudes, and some attention to detail about the religious debates current in Byzantium would have been useful.
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on 21 August 2012
I don't usually like historical fiction. Some that set stories in historical times/places but invent characters I like, but not so much the ones that attempt to create fictional characters out of historical figures. The characters rarely come to life in the book, mostly because, you know, they're dead outside the book. Historical fiction also tends to be too heavy on setting for my taste. It's as if the authors think the readers need to be absolutely convinced of the historical accuracy of every minute detail from the architecture of the period to the names and dates of every single place and event (in fairness, some readers do want this I suppose, but I don't. If I want that kind of detail, I'll read nonfictional accounts). Finally, most historical fiction of this sort is by and about men. Which is fine, I suppose, since most historical accounts available to authors are also by and about men - the his story of history - and since most of the political figures that these books tend to portray were men. But the women in the books are often, at best, portrayed as secondary characters, at worst, as completely without agency (and yes, this is often true of contemporary fiction - and everything else - as well).

So those are the main reasons I don't like historical fiction. Now let me completely contradict myself by telling you that I absolutely loved this book about Theodora, Empress of the (Byzantine) Roman Empire. I'm not going to tell you about the book itself but about what it is that I loved about it. When I'm reading a great book, there always comes a point when I know that it's a choice between put it down now or read until you finish it. I reached that point around 1:00 a.m. and knew I should go to bed and wasn't disillusioning myself by thinking I'd read just a few more pages. I looked at the clock, I looked at the book, and I kept reading. I finished at 3:30 with a sigh and damp eyes. I love Theodora. This historical character may be 1500 years dead, but on the page, she is completely alive! I have no idea how accurate the historical details of Theodora's life and the various settings are. There certainly is enough description to get a general feel for the atmosphere, the times, and the lack of telling the reader things the author feels they must know is refreshing to me. Instead, we get glimpses of what life might have been like for those living during the years in which Theodora's story unfolds. Instead of a long winded, forced telling of the role of eunuchs in the Byzantine empire (for example) we are shown the (partial) fluidity of gender and sexuality through the eyes and the life of young Theodora. I like this.

The reading/viewing/listening public are enthralled with poverty as a theme. We make ourselves feel better by basking in the nobility of poverty. Knowing that the poor have the same values as we do (the viewing/listening/reading middle class public) only tenfold, because they must try so much harder, reassures us, it reaffirms our values, it justifies poverty as what we have overcome, as what we could have been. Duffy doesn't let us get away with this. She gives us a heroine who just gets on with it. She turns from the greens to the blues because it is how she may best ensure her family's survival. She abandons her child to more capable hands because she knows that they will both be better off. She and her best friend part with hearts heavy and words few because anything else is sentimental garbage. She moves on because she must. This, to me, is the theme of Theodora as Duffy writes her. Theodora is a smart-mouthed defiant child who grows into a woman who remains exactly that. She knows what is good for her and she uses it to her advantage. When she can. But sometimes her mouth and her defiance get the better of her, and that's the fun part. Her mouth, more than any other part of her well used body, is always what gets Theodora into trouble. And into trouble she does get.

Theodora, in ways similar to Duffy's earlier The Room of Lost Things, struck me this way; I think I've read one thing and 24 or 48 hours later, I feel the theme of the book (or maybe just the theme in my head) hit me like a ton of bricks. This is not a book about an historical figure (oh, but it is) it is a book about strength. The strength of women, the strength of the poor, the strength of history, the strength of the banal. This is what she does so well. She takes things that are ordinary. She makes them come alive. And she leaves them behind, as ordinary as they were before she told us about them. Beautiful.
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on 19 October 2012
Excellent. This book takes the vaguendetails we have for the Byzantine Empress Theodora and turns her into a flesh & blood heroine. The basic details of her life including her time as an actress / prostitute are historically accurate and Stella Duffy manages to create an engaging heroine with some good lines. Only 4 stars because I think that it could have been a more substantial book...ut at least I have the purple shroud to look forward to.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 October 2014
Somewhere between a 2.5 and a 3 *
A very light read, chronicling the life of Empress Theodora of Byzantine, from her childhood as an actress/ dancer, soon propelled into prostitution; her rise in fortune as the mistress of a politician in Libya; her religious conversion in the desert and return to Constantinople...the book finishes with the commencement of her reign as consort to Justinian.
Now I quite like historical fiction, but somehow this didn't work for me. I accept Ms Duffy's note that this is a novel and bits are fictionalized, but that's not the issue. I just found Theodora very 'flat' and unbelievable. The dialogue is terribly 21st century ("Nothing escapes you, does it, big guy?" Theodora smiled...So you'll see this is the seal of the Patriarch of Alexandria. And yes, I am a day late, and no doubt I'll get a b****cking for it." ')
Events don't seem quite logical (the 'conversion' of which much is made is swiftly followed with our heroine back in the city, sleeping with men and women.)
It reminded me somewhat of Jean Plaidy's books - but not as good.
I've certainly learned something about the Byzantine royals, but don't feel motivated to read the sequel.
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on 31 May 2010
Stella Duffy is above everything a great story teller, whether it be a Saz detective novel, or a literary novel. Here she turns her skills to a historical context. This is NOT a biography of Theodora, equally its not a historical novel as some in that genre where the author gets bogged down in the research that has taken them months and is determined to use as much of it as possible in their novel - so much so that it gets in the way of the story and the characterisation of the key protagonists. THEODORA is a good story first and foremost - a stonking good read - with characters who you want to get to know, in particular Theodora who jumps off the page. The history is there as a backdrop (Stella has clearly done her research) and just enough to help us to understand the world Theodora lives in. So if you like a good story, with real characters this is for you.
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on 29 August 2012
I knew nothing about Theodora, the protagonist in this wonderful book. Duffy pulls a blinder by combining historical fact with human nature. How clever she is...I can't wait to get stuck in to The Purple Shroud to find out more about Theodora.
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