The Beacon at Alexandria
Houghton Mifflin, 1994 (1986)
Reviewed by Wesley Williamson
he Beacon at Alexandria
is the first novel Bradshaw wrote after her very successful Arthurian trilogy. It takes place in Thrace in the years just prior to 378 A.D., the date of the battle of Hadrianopolis. There Valens, Emperor of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, was killed along with most of his field armies by a barbarian horde of Goths, Visigoths and Huns. This signalled the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire.
haris, the daughter of a wealthy noble in Ephesus, is helped by her brother to escape a hateful marriage. She flees in the guise of a eunuch. She has already read Galen and Hippocrates, and becomes the assistant to a Jewish doctor, while continuing her medical studies at the renowned schools of Alexandria. However, she is enmeshed in the riotous religious politics of the time when she becomes private physician to Archbishop Athanasius. She meets Imperial agent Athanaric and saves his life. In turn, Athanaric saves Charis after Athanasius dies, when all his associates are in the gravest of danger. Still thinking her a eunuch, Athanaric has her appointed chief physician at a remote army outpost in Thrace. Here she finds herself fulfilled, and confirmed in her determination to let nothing stop her from being a doctor and following the tenets of Hippocrates.
haris is later captured by the Goths and unmasked as a woman. However she continues to treat the sick and wounded while war swirls around her, until she is rescued by Athanaric and they learn of the disaster at Adrianopolis. Despite their recognition that the Empire is dying, the novel ends on a happy note as they admit their love and plan for the future. Bradshaw tells an extremely good story with wit and elegance. Charis is a believable character and the period is brought to life in well researched detail, not only in the sophisticated cities of Ephesus and Alexandria, but in the army outposts and barbarian camps of Thrace.
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