Far Away Bird
by Douglas A. Burton
Silent Music Press, LLC

"In the end, all battles are social battles, Theodora. We just need to win that crowd today."

The Hippodrome is the center of activity in Constantinople. From chariot races to political debates to parties, it is a determiner of life or death. After Theodora’s father dies in a massive city-wide riot, she gets a chance to save her family from misfortune and take her own shot at success within the Hippodrome’s center. But how far will Theodora’s wings soar and take her?

Beautifully written and full of rich detail that transports you back in time, this novel focuses on the earlier half of Theodora’s life. Burton captures not only the essence of Theodora’s life but also the underlying political tension of Constantinople. Historically, Theodora was an actress and prostitute—a common profession for women in Constantinople during the sixth century—who became politically involved with the Blue faction and Justinian I. When Justinian became the emperor, Theodora, in turn, became the empress. Empress Theodora was known as a scandalous, influential woman of history due to her professional roots as well as the power she wielded and the changes to Roman law during her reign.

Burton’s novel plays around with Theodora’s timeline a bit, mainly during her early adult years, to make her social rise and mobility seem more chronological. All the key players in Theodora’s life as a political informant, like Macedonia and Justinian as well as Hypatius, are introduced right as Theodora’s time on the theatrical stage is waning, shifting her to the even more important and dangerous stage of politics, and it is here where Theodora shines. The “Notorious Theodora” once again transforms from a dancer-prostitute to someone more—a woman of power and secrets—which eventually helps the cause with which she’s involved.

Much of the novel focuses on Theodora’s experiences as a sex worker and her embracing and utilizing her sexual power and charms. Many of these scenes are sexy but surprisingly don’t objectify Theodora in the way one might assume since she revels in her power and desire. While this portrayal could fall into the trope or façade of a sexually liberated and empowered woman, Burton manages to write Theodora in a much more nuanced way. While Theodora enjoys her “dark femininity,” as Macedonia puts it, it is something that came from a place of shame and trauma as a young child. Readers see Theodora struggle and doubt but also learn to accept and move forward with her pain without throwing it away. Burton writes about Theodora’s assault in a way that is not fetishized and also tells of her complex feelings about it in a delicate, thoughtful, and respectful manner.

While Theodora and Justinian’s blossoming relationship is central to the plot and her arc of coming to power, it is mostly her relationships with other women that drive the story. From her competitiveness with her sister Comito, mentorship with Macedonia, and, finally, as a mother-like figure to other sex workers, Theodora is shaped by the bonds she builds with other women. And since her station in life starts out so low, one of the factors in helping Justinian and the Blue faction is for the betterment of life for her and women in her situation.

One of the more impressive moments in this novel is Burton’s adaptation of Theodora’s performances of Leda and the Swan. Historically, this lewd play was what gave Theodora her notoriety in the circles in which she performed. In both instances where this play appears in the novel, it is requested to be performed in less than desirable circumstances. Still, Theodora manages to turn that performance into an act of freedom and rebellion, echoing a message about power and autonomy that Macedonia passes down to Theodora.

More than just an imagining of Theodora’s rise to notoriety and power during the Byzantine Empire, the novel is a vivid tale of survival, healing, and femininity. It is the first act that sets the stage for the uphill battle Theodora eventually faces in bringing glory to Constantinople as a leader.

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