Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin

‘I am dreaming about her yet again.’

Stephen has been imprisoned for five years. He dreams of Theodora, his nemesis, a woman he once adored. And, when the door to his prison cell is opened, and he is pulled to his feet, he expects the worst.  Instead, he is summoned into Theodora’s presence.  She asks him to write the story of her life.  He wants to refuse but finds that he cannot.

‘Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment.’  Breathe life into my past.’

Thus begins Mr Martin’s novel about Theodora and her rise from poverty to Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Her story is intertwined with that of her biographer Stephen, a handsome Syrian boy who became a palace eunuch.

Both stories are fascinating.  Theodora rose from very humble origins to become a powerful Byzantine empress. Stephen, sold by his parents as a child to a Persian wizard, acquires language skills which stand him in good stead when he is sold again.  He and Theodora first meet in Antioch, both having suffered devastating disappointment.  They remember each other when they meet in Constantinople.  Stephen plays a pivotal part in several important events in Theodora’s life.  So, how could she have him imprisoned, and why?  And, why has she asked him to be her biographer?

‘I am writing your story, Theodora.’

I really enjoyed this novel.  I find the history of the Byzantine empire fascinating, and Theodora is a significant figure. But I particularly liked the character of Stephen.  In developing his role as Theodora’s biographer, Mr Martin makes him believable and his story heartbreaking.  This is the first book of an intended duology about Theodora, and I’m very keen to read the second book once it becomes available.

I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in well-written historical fiction set in 6th century Constantinople.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and BooksGoSocial for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith