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Imperial Purple    by Gillian Bradshaw order for
Imperial Purple
by Gillian Bradshaw
Order:  USA  Can
Houghton Mifflin, 1988 (1988)

* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

This is Bradshaw's third novel set in the Byzantine period - following The Beacon at Alexandria and The Bearkeeper's Daughter. It continues their approach with portraits of strong, intelligent, and achieving women, who overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles set by the period and their femininity to reach their goals. The objective of Charis in The Beacon at Alexandria was to become a practicing physician. For Theodora in The Bearkeeper's Daughter, it was to get and hold power as the Empress of the Roman world.

The heroine of this novel, Demetrias, is a state slave. She is an exceptionally talented weaver in Tyre, the principal centre for the production of high quality woven silk and wool. Tyre was also the place where the Imperial purple dye, extracted from shellfish, was produced. Its use was severely restricted, on pain of death, to the Emperor himself. Demetrias is ordered by the Procurator, her superior and the representative of her owner, to weave a cloak of Imperial purple. This involves her unwillingly in a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor. She has to carry out the task, but she knows that not only is her own life at great risk, but also the lives of her husband and young son. As a young girl, she had been forced by the Procurator of the time, which has left her unable to fully return her husband's love, but she is determined to do nothing to endanger him.

Circumstances result in Demetrias being carried off to Constantinople by a creature of the eunuch chamberlain Chrysaphios, who suspects the conspiracy and will go to any lengths to expose it, including torture. She saves herself with wit and determination and finds refuge in the household of Pulcheria, the Emperor's sister. Formerly regent of the Empire and another exceptional woman, Pulcheria now lives in pious seclusion. Although she has lost power to Chrysaphios, she welcomes Demetrias' news, and begins plotting to overthrow the eunuch. Demetrias' husband, also a state slave, is a purple fisher; he collects the shellfish from which the dye is produced, but in effect owns his own boat. Inadvertently his actions helped precipitate his wife's abduction, and he sets out with their son to sail from Tyre to Constantinople in search of her. Unfortunately, this only results in his own torture and imprisonment, and he again endangers Demetrias. However, she uses all her wit and courage to find the means to rescue him, even if it means opposing her new mentor and benefactor, Pulcheria.

As usual, Bradshaw brings the period to glowing life, with the added attraction in this case of illuminating the lowest class in the society, the slaves. As well, Demetrias is a fully developed character to set alongside Charis and Theodora (and also Pulcheria) as women who have found their true potential, and used it to the full.

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