I received an eARC of this book via NetGalley, courtesy of the publisher. All opinions are my own.
Far Away Bird by Douglas Burton is an adult historical fiction novel set in early 5th Century Constantinople, and is a fictionalised account of the real and somewhat scandalous story of the Byzantine Empress Theodora’s life.
I am fairly certain that this is the first installment in a series, despite this not being stated on Goodreads. In this first installment, we follow Theodora as she grows up, and also the earlier years of her adult life, where she works as a prostitute/actress and some other less than savoury occupations. There are some fairly major trigger warnings for this book, which I will have at the bottom of this review if you want to look at them.
This book is, at its essence, a character study of Theodora, and therefore the richness and depth of this character is paramount to the success of the story. This was accomplished spectacularly by Douglas Burton. We follow our main character over a fairly large period of time, but Burton strikes the perfect balance between giving us insight into defining moments in Theodora’s life, building her personality, and not overwhelming us with long descriptions of rather unnecessary happenings that add little to the story. Burton cleverly makes use of this long timeline and the occasional, well-crafted internal monologue to highlight the character development of Theodora and to delve deeper into the richness of her character.
The development of Theodora’s character also provides opportunities for the author to discuss certain moral and social issues, such as the treatment of widows, religion, and the equality of people within relationships, which adds a complex and interesting, yet not didactic, element to the novel.
This is done so impeccably that Theodora feels like a real human. She is perhaps not my favourite character ever, but that too may be a testament to how masterfully Burton has created her: she is not a fantasy for you to admire or imagine yourself as, nor is she morally grey, but she is very, very human. She makes mistakes, and has regrets, and learns from them (most of the time). She clearly has internal struggles and conflicts, and the process by which these come to light and how she deals with things that come her way do not paint her as a moral example or role model, but rather endear the reader to her as we share in her pain and perhaps realise something essentially real and identifiable in her struggles, regardless of whether we share similar experiences.
I cannot comment to this historical accuracy of the novel, as I have not studied Ancient History in much detail, and certainly not the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople in the 6th Century, but if it is historically accurate (and no one seems to have called it out as not being so yet) then Burton has done a fabulous job of transporting us back to that time. If it isn’t, well the world-building is still brilliant.
The descriptions of the places and people are not so long or flowery so as to weigh down the text and make it drag, but are rich and engaging enough that you almost feel as if you are traversing the streets of Constantinople with Theodora. Burton has created an intensely real world, the image of which is not imprinted on my brain, without turning the book into a history textbook.
The perfection of the character development and worldbuilding increases the emotional intensity with which you experience the book tenfold. You share in Theodora’s losses and jubilations, and when she is hurt it feels like someone real has been hurt. This does make some of the potentially distressing scenes more vivid and real, so do please check the trigger warnings if you are worried about that.
As you can see, I really loved this book. I initially gave it 5 stars, but did dock it to 4.5 stars after a couple of days. Some of the relationships between characters left something to be desired not in terms of complexity, but in terms of depth, and although the character of Theodora is excellent, I would have liked a little more character development of some of the side characters. However, these shortcomings are perhaps largely due to the nature of the book and how it attempts to follow Theodora’s life and get inside her head, and it is possible that Theodora herself does not consider the complexities of these other characters.
I only hope, that in future books, these complexities are revealed further, and that relationships are developed, as the relationships held very little emotional intensity and provoked little attachment or revulsion from me in the first book (with the notable exception of a couple of repulsive characters, because they deserve all of the revulsion you can possibly muster).
There are multiple rape scenes, including one where the main character is underage, which are described in a fair amount of detail, especially of the internal experience of Theodora. These scenes are not, however, romanticised in anyway, but the scenes and the resultant internal pain and conflict of Theodora may be triggering to be some.
There are also semi-graphic of other uncomfortable, dangerous sexual situations, as well as of other less taboo or less harmful sexual situations. Theodora’s early life is very much involved in the sex industry and this is reflected in this book. THIS IS NOT A BOOK FOR CHILDREN.