Uhhhh look at this book! And the entire series!
Dawn Empress: A Novel of Imperial Rome (The Theodosian Women, Book Two) by Faith L. Justice, audiobook narrated by Kathleen Li released in May 2020 in the Biographical Historical Fiction genre.
As Rome reels under barbarian assaults, a young girl must step up. After the Emperor’s unexpected death, ambitious men eye the Eastern Roman throne occupied by seven-year-old Theodosius II. His older sister Pulcheria faces a stark choice: she must find allies and take control of the Eastern court or doom the imperial children to a life of obscurity—or worse. Beloved by the people and respected by the Church, Pulcheria forges her own path to power. Can her piety and steely will protect her brother from military assassins, heretic bishops, scheming eunuchs and—most insidious of all—a beautiful, intelligent bride? Or will she lose all in the trying?
Dawn Empress tells the little-known and remarkable story of Pulcheria Augusta, 5th century Empress of Eastern Rome. Her accomplishments rival those of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great as she sets the stage for the dawn of the Byzantine Empire. Don’t miss this “gripping tale” (Kirkus Reviews); a “deftly written and impressively entertaining historical novel” (Midwest Book Reviews). Historical Novel Reviews calls Dawn Empress an “outstanding novel…highly recommended” and awarded it the coveted Editor’s Choice.
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0917053265
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0917053265
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/0917053265
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B089J6R3YZ
Nook Audiobook: https://www.nookaudiobooks.com/audiobook/1028557/dawn-empress
Faith L. Justice writes award-winning historical novels, short stories, and articles in Brooklyn, New York where she lives with her family and the requisite gaggle of cats. Her work has appeared in Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, The Copperfield Review, and many more publications. She is Chair of the New York City chapter of the Historical Novel Society, and Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine. She co-founded a writer’s workshop many more years ago than she likes to admit. For fun, she digs in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.
The Challenges of Being a Historical Fiction Writer
In an alternate universe, I’m a research librarian and content with finding facts for other folks. In this universe, I write biographical historical fiction and indulge my passion for research by telling compelling stories about important women the history books overlook. But that mission provides significant challenges. Who to choose from the deep pool of candidates? How do I research a poorly documented time or person? How to get at the people behind the history? How to tell the story in a lively empathetic way that engages a modern audience?
First challenge: choosing the lucky ladies. For millennia, extraordinary women have led nations, civic and church organizations, and social movements. They fought on land, sea and in the air as well as ancient gladiatorial arenas. They’ve studied science, created mathematics, and healed people. Women wrote poetry, literature, and plays; created art and founded businesses. They also conned, spied, and pirated. Maybe not in the same numbers as their male counterparts, but that makes them even more extraordinary and puzzling that they are left out of the history books. There are more interesting candidates than I could write about in several lifetimes.
Luckily for me, I fell in love with the story of Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria after visiting a groundbreaking feminist art exhibit The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago (now housed in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, see picture below). She was one of thirty-nine “guests” (both real and fictional) featured in the exhibit. Here was a fifth century woman mathematician, scientist, and philosopher, esteemed by her male colleagues and honored by civic and religious leaders of her city—who was murdered by a rabid mob. Hypatia is the subject of my first novel Selene of Alexandria.
In doing this initial research I also discovered the fifth century Roman empresses who are the subject of my Theodosian Women series: Placidia (Twilight Empress), Pulcheria (Dawn Empress) and Athenais (work-in-progress). All these women profoundly influenced not only their own times, but shaped several centuries of science, politics, and church doctrine. I wanted to tell their fascinating stories but, because they were not in the history books, I needed to do deeper research.
Researching these obscure women and the turbulent fifth century was difficult. This was a time of turmoil and change. Barbarians invaded the Roman Empire and laid siege to Rome three times in three years. Its fall in AD 410 and the capture of the emperor’s sister Placidia led to panic around the Mediterranean. The early Christian Church cried “Doom!” and predicted imminent End Times. Like other chaotic transition periods, this led to wars; mass movements of people; disruptions to trade, culture, education; and the destruction of fragile documents. In other words, primary sources for this period are scarce and biased toward Church documents rather than more secular history. With only a few fragments to look at, modern scholars sometime come to differing conclusions about important facts.
In my first novel, I had to choose between hotly debated birthdates twenty years apart for Hypatia. Was she an aging academic or a young scholar when she was murdered? In the Theodosian Women series, Princess Honoria is pregnant out of wedlock. Was she sixteen and shipped off to her cousin Pulcheria’s austere court in the East, or was she thirty and imprisoned by her brother the Emperor Valentinian in the West? Maybe she wasn’t pregnant but caught in an affair with her chamberlain. Respected scholars disagree on all of this, but they do agree on one thing: Honoria sent a ring to Attila, King of the Huns asking for his protection and he invaded the Roman Empire. Choosing which version of these stories, and many others, made a significant difference in my books. I chose the versions that best served my plot.
Which leads me to the challenge of how to get at the people behind the history. Lack of diaries, correspondence, and other primary sources offers an opportunity not available to better documented times. I have what these historical women accomplished as the bones for my story, but I get to create the personalities behind the history that makes the story compelling. Why did Placidia marry the Gothic general who held her hostage for five years? Was it Stockholm syndrome or genuine love? How could Pulcheria, a young girl of fifteen—precocious though she might be—outsmart a court of ambitious men to take control of an Empire? Why would Honoria send a ring to Attila?
I created psychological and personality studies for my main characters. What obvious trauma or triumph did they experience in their lives? How did their relationships, religious beliefs, and societal mores of the times shape their personalities? If unknown, what could I make up to explain this person? I combine the timeline and character studies to put together an outline of scenes, which is my writing bible. BTW, here is a picture of Empress Pulcheria on a coin which, as she says in the book, “doesn’t look at all like me.”
Which brings me to the ultimate challenge: How to tell the story in a lively empathetic way that engages a modern audience? This is a challenge for most historical fiction writers. We’ve all had to wrestle with how to present beliefs, behavior, and language that was acceptable in earlier times but not now. Most historical fiction readers understand that fact, but it’s hard to let go our modern sensibilities in the face of what we consider child abuse but was then normal parenting; or deeply held religious beliefs that come across to a secular audience as religious fanaticism. It’s up to the historical fiction writer to present their characters as complicated whole people with scars and baggage. If the reader can sympathize with an orphaned child frightened for her life and her brother’s, they can forgive the need for control she has as an adult. At least, I hope so!
On a final note, my sincere thanks to Viviana MacKade for hosting me on this blog tour. It’s always a privilege to meet new readers. If any of you have questions about my writing process or my books, feel free to get in touch through my website or other social media. I love to hear from people. Stay safe out there!
© Faith L. Justice 2021
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B003FWNP9S