BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Simonis longs for the life she is meant to live. She gets it, as, painfully and evocatively, she rises from the stables of the Hippodrome to the inner sanctum of the Imperial Palace as Callidora, Empress.
PROS: Strong sense of place and locale; divorced from history, the story of the heroine and her life is compelling.
CONS: Point of view choices in the novel seem like an uneasy compromise; historical parallels only detract from the novel’s own strengths.
BOTTOM LINE: Best enjoyed if you ignore the history of the Byzantine Empire.
The Roman Empire gets a lot of play as an inspiration for genre stories and characters. Everyone has heard of Caesar, any debauched Emperor in a secondary fantasy world is going to invoke notes of Nero, especially if he lights his capital on fire. Poul Anderson wrote an entire series of stories and novels about the fall of his Galactic Empire that mirrors the fall of Rome, with a Nordic fatalism that Dominic Flandry can only at best slow and soften the fall, not stop it.
Byzantium, though, the Eastern Roman Empire, gets far less interest as inspiration for genre writers, even if it lasted over 900 years after Rome was broken and the Western Empire ended. There are some hints and memories of what Byzantium did and did for us (the adjective byzantine, for example, shows the Empire’s flair for politics and complicated diplomacy). But, truly, while just about anyone can name a Roman Emperor or two, the gallery of Byzantine rulers and those they tangled with are far less known. Here in Byzantium are a myriad of stories waiting for borrowing, reinvention, and use and only a few authors like Harry Turtledove, Arkady Martine and Guy Gavriel Kay really taking advantage of that rich material and history. With her latest book, Alma Alexander ably joins that short list.
Alma Alexander’s Empress is a fictional retelling of the life of one of the most compelling characters in Byzantine history — the Empress Theodora. Rising from being a stable brat in the Hippodrome, through life as a famous courtesan, a harsh life with a provincial governor, Theodora finally managed to return to the Queen of cities and meet and marry the future Emperor of Byzantium himself, Justinian.
Empress is strongest when it’s evoking that life and the world of the heroine Simonis (later renamed to Callidora). While some of the few works that have borrowed from the history of 6th century Byzantium have shown Theodora as Empress, digging into her history and how she rose to the purple is a far rarer bird. In Empress, Alexander adroitly describes the stables of the Hippodrome, the desperate poverty that the heroine comes from, and the hard journey around the known world back to the City of Gold. Given the number of historical sources pointed against her, a book having a sympathetic fictional portrait of a Theodora-analogue is long overdue and the author rises to that challenge magnificently. The book’s heroine is clearly its heart, and her story is lavished with strong detail, heart and love. Simonis emotionally feels very much like the historical Theodora I know — intelligent, driven, devout, and resolute.
The novel’s choice of using a second point-of-view besides Simonis, that of Marcus (Maxentius), feels like an uneasy compromise in order to depict events for which one character or the other was not present. The problem I found as a reader was with my perception of the writer’s investment when it comes to her other protagonist. The story doesn’t work anywhere near as well, though, with Marcus, the alternate Justinian. Justinian is one of the greatest figures in world history and the novel tries to show (rightly, in my view) that his wife was definitely part of that – a true “power couple” devoted to each other. But Maxentius, himself, does not effectively show his half of that relationship at all in his own scenes. Although his point of view is useful, I wish that the author had focused exclusively on Simonis (Callidora) and seen everything through her eyes.
I am also not convinced by a subplot that was without any historical analog — the business with the Vesigar court. Theodora as a historical character is a complex and complicated woman, whose real story is hard to tease out of the sources, some of which are strongly biased against her. With the Vesigar court subplot thrown in, it felt as if the writer was trying to capture some of that ambiguity of Theodora’s nature. I don’t think it succeeds as well as it might have. Given the novel’s stopping point, at an analog of the Nika Riots, having some of that ambiguity is welcome.
In a real way, I think Empress is best suited, paradoxically, to those without the strongest of groundings in the history of the Byzantine Empire, which will likely be most readers of this review. In that way, the story can be enjoyed without worrying about lack of historical parallels. When the narrative transports the reader into the world of her alternate Byzantium and the life of her alternate Theodora, without the real world lurking behind it, the strengths of the story come best to light.