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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Twilight Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome (The Theodosian Women Book One) by Faith L. Justice is a truly fascinating combination of recorded history and artistic literary license. It is the middle of the fifth century CE and the Western Roman Empire is teetering on the verge of collapse as a collection of barbarian tribes sweeps down, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, Gauls, and more, all seeking to end the Roman domination of Western Europe and North Africa. Flavius Honorius Augustus sits on the Western Roman throne as Emperor but he is no longer in Rome, rather running his court from the swampy marshes north of the capital in Ravenna as the Goths besiege the city of Rome. In the palace in Rome, awaiting her fate, is Honorius’ half-sister Galla Placidia Augusta. When Rome is finally breached by the Goths and the city looted and burned, Placida is taken captive and held as a bargaining chip, with the Emperor. Placidia must spend several years with the barbarian army, King Alaric and his brother-in-law and successor, Ataulf. During her time with the Goths, Placidia comes to understand them and realizes they are not the savages the Romans had always painted them to be but just normal human beings with human wants and desires for freedom and a home to call their own. The romantic sparks between Placidia and Ataulf provide the foundation of a story of intrigue, excitement, action, patriotism, and love that will thrill readers.
Twilight Empress is just the first of a trio of books by Faith L. Justice that seek to not only explain but elevate three remarkable Theodosian women to the annals of history through semi-fictional tales of their lives. This is one of the most enjoyable reads of the year for me. The author’s extensive knowledge of recorded history and its impact on the European continent from this often mysterious period around the fall of the Western Roman Empire is both compelling and addictive. I particularly loved the intense emotion of Placidia both for her beloved Rome and the concept of Roman civilization but also for love and family. I did find fascinating the contrast between the attitudes of the powers in the Western Empire and that of the Eastern Empire. It would seem to the observer that Placidia, Honorius, and their ilk took the mantle of power as divine right and with the assumption that the people were there to serve them. The arrogance of the leaders was evident in all turns of the story. Although those in the East also believed they were divinely appointed, their concern for the welfare of their citizenry was clearly much greater than those of the West. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the length of the Byzantine Empire versus the Western Roman Empire. I just loved the deep personalization of these historical figures that the author provided, giving the reader a rare insight into characters that could be loved, hated, or despised. This story ranks highly on my list and I will be looking carefully for the next two expositions of the Theodosian women. I can highly recommend this book.