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The Bearkeeper's Daughter    by Gillian Bradshaw order for
Bearkeeper's Daughter
by Gillian Bradshaw
Order:  USA  Can
Houghton Mifflin, 1987
* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

The novel is set in the sixth century A.D., in the great city of Constantinople at the height of its glory as capital of the Eastern Empire. It is ruled by the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. By the genius of their general, Belisarius, they regained North Africa and, for a short time, Italy from the Vandals and Goths. Historians, as well as novelists, have been fascinated by this period and particularly by Theodora, the bearkeeper's daughter, who rose from the depths of poverty and prostitution to become Empress of the East.

Bradshaw has chosen to build her story around John, bastard son of Diodoros of Bostra, in the Province of Arabia. He is told by his father on his death bed that his mother was Theodora. She had lived with Diodoros when he was a student, but left him and her son when he married. John has no place in the family at Bostra, and decides to seek the favour of his mother the Empress in Constantinople. Theodora, though she will not acknowledge him as her son, arranges for John to obtain a positon under the eunuch Narses, where his skills at accounting and shorthand soon move him closer to the centre of power in the bureaucracy.

Narses, surprisingly, is also a capable general, and shared command of the army of Italy for a time with Belisarius. John accompanies him as his aide on a recruiting mission, and takes a prominent part in a successful battle against a barbarian horde which has invaded Thrace. John becomes unavoidably involved in the factional politics revolving around Justinian and Theodora, and must make life or death choices; either to accept his mother's plans for his future, or follow his own heart wherever it leads.

The story is told with crisp economy and non-stop excitement so that the reader is held enthralled from the opening pages. Three authors stand out in my memory as supremely bringing the period to life; Bradshaw in The Bearkeeper's Daughter, Robert Graves' Count Belisarius, and Guy Gavriel Kay's in his duo The Sarantine Mosaic. In some ways, and particularly in the depiction of the complex character of Theodora with her all too human failings, Bradshaw has succeeded best.
Note: The Bearkeeper's Daughter is unfortunately out of print but still available from libraries and second hand bookstores.

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