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Theodora: Book review

Reviewed by's Mel Scott

The tag line from Stella Duffy's new novel Theodora reads simply - "Theodora: Actress. Empress. Whore." 

It's an intriguing premise, based on the life of an actual historical figure who rose from actress and prostitute to become one of the most powerful women in the Byzantine Christian Empire.

Theodora is a new direction for New Zealand writer Stella Duffy, as she turns to the popular genre of historical fiction.

She paints a vivid and lush portrait of life during the Byzantine era, as the old Greek and Roman gods are fading away and the new Christian religion is still finding its feet.

At the centre of it all is Theodora.

After her father dies while she's still a young girl, Theodora is forced into the life of an actress, dancer and eventually prostitute. 

She embraces her life and career with vigour, becoming the most famous actress in all of Constantinople. After retiring it all for love, a failed relationship leads her to embrace Christianity and puts her on a path to becoming Empress.

I'd never read anything on Byzantine Empire or Theodora but after reading Duffy's account of her early life I was fascinated.

A rags to riches tale, like Theodora's, is endlessly appealing but it's what she did as Empress, after the story ends, that to me is just as remarkable.

According to historians, as empress, Theodora ruled equally with her husband, Emperor Justinian, and helped change laws to protect women of all classes.

It can be tricky to craft a plot around historical events that don't always move with the pace required for a good story. Duffy works well with what she's got, but it's the title character Theodora who proves the most engaging.

Duffy's Theodora is smart, feisty, caring and flawed. She comes across as a thoroughly relatable and modern character, often making mistakes but ultimately trying to live a better life. Even in religious piety, she doesn't lose her spark and love of life. 

Theodora is definitely a departure from Duffy's other novels and it is comparable to other successful historical novels about women, such as The Boleyn Girl. 

Where the novel shines is in bringing back into the spotlight the life of a gutsy and admirable woman after a thousand years of relative obscurity.


Hachette (Little, Brown)
RRP: $34.99
Available: Now