Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: The Eagle and the Swan by Carol Strickland

The Eagle and the Swan
by Carol Strickland
Release Date: November 7th, 2013
2013 Erudition Digital
Ebook Edition; 556 Pages
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from NFVBT

3 / 5 Stars

This historical novel tells the story of one of the most maligned--and significant--figures of the Late Roman Empire, Empress Theodora of 6th-century Constantinople. Born the circus bear-keeper's daughter, she was a burlesque dancer, actress and courtesan before she began her escape from the gutter. Through her beauty and brilliance, she attracted the interest of a young soldier, himself born a peasant. Justinian was as ambitious and driven as Theodora. Together, they shook up not only the staid aristocrats of Byzantium but the entire Roman Empire.

My Thoughts
The Eagle and the Swan is the second book I've read about Theodora this year and I was really looking forward to learning more about her and about her controversial life with Justinian.  Ms. Strickland had a very unique view to sharing her research and historical detail, which I enjoyed, but I also feel that this emphasis on historical detail is the reason why I didn't quite enjoy the book as much as I really wanted to.  

The story is supposed to written by a monk, Fabianus, a man rescued from the slums by Theodora and who becomes an intimate in her life.  He constantly struggles with the fact that he may not be able to do justice to her life and to her personality and I liked reading about this conflict as it gave us a more in-depth aspect into the struggles of how another person actually viewed Theodora and how difficult she was to understand.  Through his eyes we could see she was brash, bold, stubborn, independent, but vulnerable at the same time, and quite theatrical, often looking for attention.  It was quite a mix, personality wise, and I can see how perhaps the court didn't quite know how to deal with her and her mixed bag of feelings and temperaments.  Justinian was very different personality wise, although he came from the same low roots, but he was more open in his calculations and his ambitions, colder, not quite as theatrical.  

The way the plot is told is a narrative style whereby Fabianus is told both Theodora's and Justinian's story from their points of view.  While I enjoyed this style in the beginning, I will admit that it did get on my nerves around the mid-point mark, and I felt like it was dragging and I just wanted to get on with the story.  There is only so much of the same drama you can take from Theodora before you just want her to get on with the story.  That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the internal politics but it seemed repetitive, as if it was getting nowhere, and I just wanted to get on with the story.  Besides, there are only so many sex scenes you can share in detail before you've had enough of that and want to get on with the story.  I realize it plays a huge role in shaping Theodora's character and how we view her, but I didn't really need to read about her and the swan in such detail.  Or how many positions so and so wanted - I think the reader would have understand the degradation without going into graphic detail all the time, you know?  

The sixth century Constantinople was quite a time period and I definitely enjoyed the descriptions of life at that time.  There was no covering up and glamourizing it, she told it exactly as she learned about it through research and I definitely appreciated that fact.  Some of it was hard to read about - the young children and the men, the starvation, the way people were tortured and treated, but it was how life was like and I'm glad she didn't trivialize it in any way.  The only negative thing about it is the way she narrated it, I didn't have that feeling like I was there, although I could visualize it quite well.  I also marveled at her building triumphs, having been responsible (with Justinian) for rebuilding Constantinople after the Nika revolt, building or rebuilding aqueducts, churches, bridges, and other buildings.  She was also a huge advocate for the rights of women.

The Eagle and the Swan was a fascinating book in terms of learning about the life of early Byzantine, and the city of Constantinople.  I have always been fascinated by this city, and I really appreciated the fact that Ms. Strickland did not fantasize or glamourize the city in any way, but wrote about it as she would have learned through research; it made me appreciate the difficulty that many citizens faced during their lives, and what a triumph it would have been for both Justinian and Theodora to have accomplished what they did.  At the same time, the way the story was told made me impatient and I found myself swamped in historical detail, and while this is something I often enjoy, it took away from the story itself, and made the story drag on a bit too much, to the point where I found my mind wandering quite frequently and had to re-read passages.  I wasn't overly crazy with the ending, and to be honest, it was a relief to have finished.  If this wasn't a book that I promised to review, I'm not sure I would have finished it, and that says a lot.   For those of you who really would like another take on Theodora, then this one is certainly that, and her story can be quite engaging, and I would recommend it for the descriptions of the time period, and for an interesting viewpoint on Theodora and the questions it raises about women as well as rights and freedoms.