The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton

15808671Where Theodora went, trouble followed…

In sixth-century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds and rose from common theater tart to empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know. The woman whose image was later immortalized in glittering mosaic was a scrappy, clever, conniving, flesh-and-blood woman full of sensuality and spirit whose real story is as surprising as any ever told….

After her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation and a life on the streets. Determined to survive, Theodora makes a living any way she can—first on her back with every man who will have her, then on the stage in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention. When her daring performance grants her a backdoor entry into the halls of power, she seizes the chance to win a wealthy protector—only to face heartbreak and betrayal.

Ever resilient, Theodora rises above such trials and, by a twist of fate, meets her most passionate admirer yet: the emperor’s nephew. She thrives as his confidant and courtesan, but many challenges lie ahead. For one day this man will hand her a crown. And all the empire will wonder—is she bold enough, shrewd enough, and strong enough to keep it? – Goodreads

I ate this up in an all-consuming-couldn’t-put-it-down kind of way. I was on vacation when I read this, so I was able to binge read the hell out of it while the graveshift boyfriend slept until noon.

To put it simply, Theodora’s life kind of sucks for, well, most of her life. The suffering was almost too much (rape, prostitution, poverty, abuse, etc.) — but her resiliency and strength was what kept me reading. Rather than accepting her fate, she took matters into her own hands and made it work.

Thornton navigates these topics expertly and in a non-exploitative manner — these events are what shaped this woman and drove her to take her future into her own hands, to refuse to be a pawn.

The book is in first-person through Theodora’s eyes — this gives the reader a firsthand account of her emotions, thought process and world. She is a multi-dimensional character, and I came to really care about her and her future by the end of the book. I hurt when she hurt. I was upset when she was upset.

If you’re looking for a fabulous historical read on a woman who rose from the bottom — this is it. It’s powerful, it’s well written. I rated it a 5/5.

Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran

6340471At the dawn of the Roman Empire, when tyranny ruled, a daughter of Egypt and a son of Rome found each other…

Selene’s legendary parents are gone. Her country taken, she has been brought to the city of Rome in chains, with only her twin brother, Alexander, to remind her of home and all she once had.

Living under the watchful eyes of the ruling family, Selene and her brother must quickly learn how to be Roman – and how to be useful to Caesar. She puts her artistry to work, in the hope of staying alive and being allowed to return to Egypt. Before long, however, she is distracted by the young and handsome heir to the empire…

When the elusive ‘Red Eagle’ starts calling for the end of slavery, Selene and Alexander are in grave danger. Will this mysterious figure bring their liberation, or their demise? – Goodreads

I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I’m a biased, loyal Michelle Moran reader who adores reading historical fiction about Ancient Egypt.

On the other hand, this one definitely wasn’t my favorite.

One thing I typically love about Moran’s books is the strong sense of connection to the main character. I found that I didn’t really care about Selene that much. Sure, I appreciated the fact that she was smart and cared about her studies, whereas other women were only interested in parties (I identified with Selene a bit there), but that was where it ended. I had a difficult time with believing their emotions when they were sent to Rome and how quickly they bonded with the people there.

Many of the characters fell flat and were obnoxiously predictable. Actually, much of the story was predictable, down to the identity of the Red Eagle, which was a pretty big plotline.

I was also a bit sad at the lack of romance. There was some, but not a lot. Mostly the love interests annoyed me.

It was an okay read — I read it in Mexico and finished it in a day, but I definitely recommend Moran’s other books more. I rated this a 3/5.


The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

25577005A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.

Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive. – Goodreads

Political intrigue, prophecies, history, ruthless killings…this is like Game of Thrones, ancient China style.

I was immediately drawn into this book and had a hard time putting it down. I really enjoyed Mei as a main character — she was strong, determined and focused on her goal (even if that was winning over an old dude who was possibly crazy, enjoyed hurting people and couldn’t keep it up). She’s not the only determined one — plenty of other girls are also determined, and will stop at nothing to get ahead of the others. Backstabbing galore!

I loved the worldbuilding in this — it was easy to picture the characters, the palace, the attire. Randel’s writing flows well and I was definitely invested in the characters, who were also constructed well.

I really enjoyed the romance aspect of this book — it wasn’t the overarching theme, and it was subtle — however, it was heartbreaking to watch Mei pursue a violent, terrible man in order to rise through the ranks while being completely in love with Pheasant, a kind-hearted prince who stood no chance of becoming Emperor.

The book isn’t for the faint of heart — there is plenty of blood, gore and violence, including a maid being trampled by horses, a flutist being killed by his forbidden, someone getting kicked in the face by a horse, someone getting beaten to death, etc. Very vivid imagery on those passages.

Overall, I rated this a 4/5 — I wasn’t so in love with it that I will be picking up the second installment, but it was a very enjoyable and intriguing read.


The Conqueror’s Wife by Stephanie Thornton

330s, B.C.E., Greece: Alexander, a handsome young warrior of Macedon, begins his quest to conquer the ancient world. But he cannot ascend to power, and keep it, without the women who help to shape his destiny.

25021810His spirited younger half-sister, Thessalonike, yearns to join her brother and see the world. Instead, it is Alexander’s boyhood companion who rides with him into war while Thessalonike remains behind. Far away, crafty princess Drypetis will not stand idly by as Alexander topples her father from Persia’s throne. And after Alexander conquers her tiny kingdom, Roxana, the beautiful and cunning daughter of a minor noble, wins Alexander’s heart…and will commit any crime to secure her place at his side.

Within a few short years, Alexander controls an empire more vast than the civilized world has ever known. But his victories are tarnished by losses on the battlefield and treachery among his inner circle. And long after Alexander is gone, the women who are his champions, wives, and enemies will fight to claim his legacy… – Goodreads

I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with this one. I loved that it pulled me out of a reading slump, but I hate how long it took me to read it. I think the length was twofold — one, it was a very slow read. The description was beautiful and she really gets into the characters. It’s also almost 500 pages. Two, life has been a little crazy and I got distracted.

I love Thornton’s work, but multiple characters can be exhausting at times, though she does a pretty amazing job at making all of their voices come together and paint a vivid picture. I loved the concept of portraying Alexander the Great through the eyes of the important people in his life — his sister, his lover, his captive, his best friend.

I also love Thornton’s writing style and dialogue. It’s engaging, witty, and so much fun to read and visualize.

I think if I had read this at a different time in my life, I would have enjoyed it more. Overall, I would definitely recommend this to those who love historical fiction. I rated it a 4/5.



The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court by Michelle Moran

10553215After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When Marie-Louise, the eighteen year old daughter of the King of Austria, is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon, leaving the man she loves and her home forever, or say no, and plunge her country into war.

Marie-Louise knows what she must do, and she travels to France, determined to be a good wife despite Napoleon’s reputation. But lavish parties greet her in Paris, and at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine, and his sister Pauline, the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. Beloved by some and infamous to many, Pauline is fiercely loyal to her brother. She is also convinced that Napoleon is destined to become the modern Pharaoh of Egypt. Indeed, her greatest hope is to rule alongside him as his queen—a brother-sister marriage just as the ancient Egyptian royals practiced. Determined to see this dream come to pass, Pauline embarks on a campaign to undermine the new empress and convince Napoleon to divorce Marie-Louise.

As Pauline’s insightful Haitian servant, Paul, watches these two women clash, he is torn between his love for Pauline and his sympathy for Marie-Louise. But there are greater concerns than Pauline’s jealousy plaguing the court of France. While Napoleon becomes increasingly desperate for an heir, the empire’s peace looks increasingly unstable. When war once again sweeps the continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family in Austria, the second Empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life. – Goodreads

Well, this wasn’t my favorite Michelle Moran book, but I still enjoyed it. It took me a while because it was a bit slow in parts and I never became totally attached to a character.

First of all, Napoleon is a total douche. I know, I know, we all knew that. But to read about his character…ergh. He made me so mad. He is power hungry and gives zero shits about anyone’s life but his own. Can you say narcissistic?

His sister, Pauline, was just as bad—though the clap made her actually nuts. Not only does she want to do her brother so they can conquer Egypt together (because she’s obsessed with the ancients), she’s materialistic and narcissistic. She also slept around a lot, but that didn’t bother me nearly as much as the other stuff (she did toy with mens’ emotions and send them to the front lines of battle to die when she was done seeing them. That’s a shitty way to break up with someone). The only nice thing she did was bring Sigi, Marie-Louise’s dog, to France for Marie-Louise.

My favorite POVs were through Marie-Louise and Paul (who is Pauline’s servant…who she renamed…after herself…)

Mary-Louise is an Austrian princess who has to marry Napoleon. She leaves behind the man and family she loves to fulfill her duty. Napoleon (who is no thin mint himself) is constantly commenting on her weight and even shoves her face into some food. Asshole.

We get a pretty good glimpse into how Mary-Louise feels and what’s happening to her, which I appreciated. I did feel that she could have been developed more.

Paul was my favorite. He’s a little bit obnoxious in the lovesick-for-Pauline kind of way, but he is down to earth and smart.

The worldbuilding was alright. I thought that it could have been fleshed out more. I had a hard time picturing Paris, the castle, their attire, etc.

In all, it was a good read, but not my favorite. I rated it a 3/5 on Goodreads.


The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan by Stephanie Thornton

20893339In the late twelfth century, across the sweeping Mongolian grasslands, brilliant, charismatic Temujin ascends to power, declaring himself the Great, or Genghis, Khan. But it is the women who stand beside him who ensure his triumph….

After her mother foretells an ominous future for her, gifted Borte becomes an outsider within her clan. When she seeks comfort in the arms of aristocratic traveler Jamuka, she discovers he is the blood brother of Temujin, the man who agreed to marry her and then abandoned her long before they could wed.

Temujin will return and make Borte his queen, yet it will take many women to safeguard his fragile new kingdom. Their daughter, the fierce Alaqai, will ride and shoot an arrow as well as any man. Fatima, an elegant Persian captive, will transform her desire for revenge into an unbreakable loyalty. And Sorkhokhtani, a demure widow, will position her sons to inherit the empire when it begins to fracture from within.

In a world lit by fire and ruled by the sword, the tiger queens of Genghis Khan come to depend on one another as they fight and love, scheme and sacrifice, all for the good of their family…and the greatness of the People of the Felt Walls. – Goodreads

Ummm, damn. I definitely had a book hangover after this one. It was amazing.

I’ve never really been into historical fiction—that is, until recently. Now it’s all I want to read. I first dipped my toes in the historical fiction water last year with Outlander, and have since spread to stories surrounding ancient Egypt and now ancient Mongolia.

Tiger Queens is split into four stories, which happen in chronological order. The first third of the book focuses on Borte’s story, and the beginning of Genghis Khan’s rule. She is his first wife. It follows her story for quite a few years before skipping forward about seventeen years to follow her daughter’s story. The time jump from Alaqai’s story to Fatima’s story is pretty short, and Fatima’s story in general is short. The book wraps up with Sorkhokhtani’s story.

I loved the way the book told their stories. Sure, the focus was always on Genghis Khan at some point. After all, they were all related or connected to him in some way or another. But the story focuses on these women and how they hold his family together, bear the brunt of the work, support each other, and raise their families. All four women are strong, supportive, and total badasses. They survive terrible things, they have babies without epidurals, they do what they must to make their families proud, they do hard manual labor to ensure their family’s survival.

The writing was smooth and the imagery was great. I could clearly imagine the Mongolian grasslands, the tents, the outfits, the people. It was a truly wonderful read, and I had a difficult time putting it down.

I rated Tiger Queens 5/5 on Goodreads.


Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

6581303Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress. – Goodreads

If you’re looking for a quick, easy, happy read—pass this puppy up, because it’s a bundle of sadness and hard times. I guess that’s the story of ancient Rome, amiright?

The book follows three mistresses of the insane Emperor Domitian. It’s written in first-person for each of them — Thea, a Jewish slave singer, Julia, the emperor’s niece, and Lepida, a rich girl who used to be Thea’s owner.

Out of the three, Julia was my favorite. She was pretty much a strong, badass lady. I can’t go into any more detail than that or I’ll ruin it.

Thea was my second favorite (even though she moaned constantly in the book—every time something happen “Thea let out a moan”. I swear. So much moaning.) She was also strong and resilient, and put up with a ton of shit over the 15 years that the book spanned. I desperately wanted her and Arius to have a happy ending and their pain just spanned for sooooo long. And she had to deal with being forced into prostitution and being the emperor’s mistress while he basically physically and sexually abused her. Terrible.

Lepida was a total B. I wished I could just skip her chapters because she was an awful person. Selfish, manipulative, and just…ugh. All around terrible. She didn’t care who was killed or hurt as a result of her schemes to rise to power.

The worldbuilding was good. For many scenes, I felt that I had a good understanding of the scenery and what it all looked like, especially the fights in in Colosseum. The violence and gore was super easy to visualize…guts and blood all around!

It was very slow in many parts—to a point where I legit thought the book was at least 600 pages. I would have DNF’d if I hadn’t dropped $8 on this.

Overall, I love historical fiction—but this book didn’t do it for me. It was a little too long and drawn out and painful for me. I rated it a 2/5 on Goodreads.